Must We Choose the Prophets Over the Priests?

‘‘has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams’’ (1 Sam. 15:22–23).

‘‘what to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats’’ (Isa. 1:11).

‘‘the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord’’ (Prov. 15:8; 21:27).

“For I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

For more than a century it has been common in OT scholarship to pit the prophets against the priests. Drawing on texts such as these, scholars would draw a stark contrast between two sorts of religious streams of consciousness within Israel, and the practice associated with them. Originally proposed by German scholars like Julius Wellhausen, an evolutionist paradigm of the growth of Hebrew religion (which typically went hand in hand with a sort of European, liberal Protestant, anti-Semitism) liked to see a line of development from older, retrograde forms of religion caught up with ritual, blood, and sacrifice, towards later, moral, spiritual, anti-sacrificial religion in the Prophets. Max Weber also worked a prophet v. priest paradigm into his classic Economy and Society, and let’s just say the priests don’t come out looking too good, either.

While this line of thought waned a bit, or transformed, in his work challenging the anti-sacrificial bias in 20th Century scholarship, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple, Jonathan Klawans notes that forms of this paradigm still have some vigorous advocates in the academy (75-77). (Though, it should be noted that later iterations have consciously and rightly tried to purge the anti-Semitic sentiments.)

At a popular level, though, recent advocates of non-violent, “Christocentric”, or Girardian re-readings of the Old Testament will often point to these sorts of texts to show that the Bible itself contains dialogue and disagreements that present ideological disjuncts, which force readers to choose between them. When we encounter these passages, we may begin to re-evaluate our entire notion of God’s gift/revelation of the Law, its sacrificial prescriptions, and its place in understanding Christ’s work on the cross in the New Testament. In which case, when we see that Christ himself “takes sides” in his own non-violent, anti-sacrificial ministry (Matt. 9:13), the choice becomes clear.

But is this dichotomy between a priestly and an anti-sacrificial, prophetic ideology really at work in Israel’s Scriptures? Or if there is one, is it a hard one? Are we dealing with an absolute, theological disagreement in these critiques, or something more mitigated, more specific, more contextually-focused?

purity and klawansKlawans argues vigorously and decisively for the latter in chapter 3 of his aforementioned work. What I want to do in this post is simply summarize a bit of his case, since it’s very helpful in clearing up recent muddled discussions, and drawing our attention to pertinent facts which are frequently glossed over in these discussions.

Challenging the Dichotomy

First, after summarizing the paradigm, Klawans makes the important point that Weber’s influential dichotomy doesn’t really hold up cleanly on close inspection:

Jeremiah was descended from priests (Jer. 1:1), as was Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1–3). Prophetic heroes like Moses, Samuel, and Elijah are remembered as actively performing sacrificial offerings (e.g., Exod. 24:4–8; 1 Sam. 3:1, 7:10, 9:14; 1 Kgs. 18:30–39)… It is sometimes surmised that Isaiah—whose call vision is situated in God’s sanctuary (Isa. 6:1)—may have been of priestly descent himself, though the evidence in this regard is certainly inconclusive. Without any doubt later prophets such as Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were actively involved in the restoration of sacrificial worship in the early Second Temple period. Under the influence of Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1966), the designation ‘‘cultic prophet’’ has also been applied to additional biblical figures, including Nahum, Habbakuk, and Joel, among others If prophetic activity could be cultic, and prophets themselves priestly, could their rejection of sacrifice really have been complete? (79-80)

Tracing this out at length does much to dissipate the appearance of an absolute disagreement about sacrifice and cult.

Second, the ideal types don’t match up when you consider the fact that some priestly material evinces some of the allegedly prophetic, moral edge. Leviticus 19 blends the two without any sense that cultic piety concerned with proper sacrifice and moral piety concerned with social justice and love of neighbor are at odds.

Third, we must consider the fact that prophets criticize more than sacrifice:

Amos objects to the Israelites’ festivals (Amos 5:21), and Isaiah objects to their prayers (Isa. 1:14–15). Is it conceivable that the prophets have categorically opposed all forms of worship? If they didn’t oppose all prayer, could they really have opposed all sacrifice? (80)

We rightly don’t have significant theses about the anti-supplicatory bent in prophetic theology, so why sacrifice?

Fourth, relatedly, some prophets include the Temple and the restoration of sacrificial worship in their visions of the restoration of Israel. Isaiah and Micah see visions of worshippers streaming to the Temple (Isa. 2:1-4; Mic. 4:1-5). Jeremiah mentions sacrifices specifically (Jer. 17:26; 33:17-18). And obviously Ezekiel, with his vision of the restoration of the Temple and its worship spanning 7-8 chapters certainly didn’t have an anti-sacrificial bias.

Fifth, the Prophets were a feisty bunch. They were prone to dramatic provocation in order to make a point. Isaiah walked around naked. Ezekiel cooked his food over feces. Hosea likely married a prostitute. It helps to remember, then, that violent, poetic, hyperbole was one of the least controversial means at their disposal to render a critique.

This really can’t be stressed enough. Work through the prophets at length, consult good guides to genre, style, the nature of Hebrew poetry, etc. and you realize just how unnecessary some of these dichotomous readings really are. Klawans argues that, “What seems like a categorical rejection can probably be better be understood as a prioritization” (81). Formulations of advice with the “not…but…” structure appear elsewhere (Prov. 8:10), and in these cases, it seems clear the advice is not absolute.

Taken together, these various considerations ought to make us slow to accept the absolute dichotomy between “sacrificial” ideologies and “prophetic” religion proposed by both scholars and popular thinkers. (I don’t have space to fill this out, but here I’d simply add that when we turn to the New Testament and consider Christ’s ministry and work, we should similarly avoid such dichotomies. Christ ministers as King, Priest, and Prophet, fulfilling the divine directives of all three.)

Explaining the Challenge: Sacrifice without Cost

But how can we explain these texts? Because there really is a critique. And it’s very likely that the prophets were denouncing actual priestly practice they were observing. We cannot and should not try to muzzle, or dismiss these texts.

I cannot adequately summarize Klawan’s full proposal or analysis here, but I’ll try to note a few key points.

First, he suggests that the most common approach, which suggests the problem is not sacrifice per se but the abuse of the practice, has merit: “Proper worship presupposes moral righteousness” (82). In the absence of righteousness, then, the worship itself becomes detestable, as Abraham Heschel argued. Klawans cautions, though, that many iterations of this response often assume modern, theological sensibilities foreign to the text, such as the “ritual-versus-ethics distinction”, or merely external versus internal obedience, or letter versus spirit.

Second, Klawans argues that light is shed on the situation when you consider that sacrifice as ritual should be understood as a form of repeated, symbolic action (yet another way of breaking down the world of the prophetic and the priestly).

Materially, Klawans notes that however you come to think of the function of sacrifice (communion, expiation, gift, etc.), every notion involves “at least in part the transfer of property from the layperson to the priest, and from the priest to God” (84). Your sacrifice is to be something you own, or else it is not sacrifice on any reading. Klawans supports this analysis in a variety of ways from Levitical literature involving ownership, the laying on of hands, laws of restitution, etc. (85-86). He takes this as a key hook into part of the prophetic critique of sacrifice.

Exemplary here is David’s protest in 1 Chron. 21, when Araunah offers to give him the threshing floor and the sacrifice to avert the destruction of the plague: “no, I will by them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24; 1 Chron. 21:24). Klawans comments, “If what’s given to you constitutes an inappropriate offering to God, how much more what is stolen!” (86)

Klawans goes on to point out that much of the prophetic critique concerns the immoral means by which sacrificial material has been acquired. Amos’s condemnation connects transgressions cult with violations of the rights of the poor (2:6-8). Isaiah 61:8 explicitly pictures the Lord declaring, “for I the Lord love justice: I hate robbery with a burnt offering.” Malachi is also concerned with right offerings before Lord and sees them tainted through their being lame, blind, sickly, and stolen (1:6-13). They are detestable to the Lord because they are “brought without due cost” (87).

Passage after passage could be adduced connecting the concern for economic exploitation with the critique of sacrifice (Amos 5; Isa. 1; Jer. 6), suggesting “the prophets ‘rejection’ of sacrifice was deeply connected to their belief that Israel was economically rotten to the core” (87). This renders their sacrifices both ritually and morally grotesque. There is a gap between the meaning of sacrifice and the moral and economic culture surrounding its current practice that nullified it. On this understanding, if you take the prophets tendency towards exaggeration, hyperbole, and provocation, “who wasn’t a thief in Amos’s conception of things?” (88). For Amos, there is a fundamental problem with the practice of sacrifice in his time.

We can even say there may be a split between the prophets and the priests at the time when the critiques were leveled. They may have differed in their evaluation of Israel’s spiritual state, or how bad the corruption had gotten—was it the kind of thing the cult could deal with or not? But this is far from a matter of rejecting the cult in toto, or seeing it as not truly given by God, or replacing it with a completely different form of religion because Israel has evolved in its relationship beyond such messy, violent, sacrificial forms.

I don’t have time to follow out the rest of his analysis, but even glancing over at Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jer. 7:9-14), you see many of the same concerns at work. The whole text gives you a sense that the economic dimension is connected to that broader concern that Israelite practice of the cult is corrupt, rather than the cultic system as given in the Law itself.

While we may not be convinced that this economic dimension is the heart of the critique, or its only facet, nor that this solves all of our problems with these texts, Klawan has shown that those who refuse see the prophetic critique as fundamentally opposed to priestly practice and the cult are on to something. Instead of an irreconcilable, ideological division, we have historically-situated criticisms of practices and institutions surrounding the Temple, sacrifice, and so forth. We therefore “must avoid simple categorizations, be they religious or scholarly”, and we “cannot selectively take certain prophetic texts at face value” (99).

Slowing Down

As a final point, I’d simply add I believe the same sort of case can be made with a number of the apparent, ideological splits, or theological “contradictions” in Scripture currently being proposed as wedges, asking us to listen to these verses, not those, or these voices, not those. Yes, there are many apparent difficulties. There are tensions which are difficult to resolve—especially when we pit hasty readings against each other. And, at times, it is simply easier to throw our hands up and “admit”, or “be honest”, that we just can’t make the parts fit together.

But this is an impatience that, if given into, stunts our ability to sit humbly with the texts and hear from the Lord. We will become readers who need our Scriptures simple, immediately transparent, and able to be summarized in a soundbite. We more and more become a people uncomfortable with nuance and tension in our theology, our preaching, and ultimately our practice of faith.

Indeed, it’s instructive that Jesus invites his hearers to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’,” (Matt. 9:13). He does not presume the answer will be immediately apparent. He invites them to go learn, consider, meditate slowly on the text, and then come back and evaluate his work. I suggest his invitation remains the same today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tradition as a Telescope Not a Dirty Window

genesis imageIn the introduction to their new translation of Genesis, Genesis 1–11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators, Samuel Bray and John Hobbins explain various aspects of their translation philosophy. For instance, they emphasize rendering words consistently which keeps intratextual ties tight, clear, and without leaving the reader to wonder why a change occurred in the text where none actually does. Or again, they play special attention to how the translation sounds when read aloud, impacting the experience and encounter of the reader with the text.

Commenting on their willingness to let the reception-history of translation play a role in their own translation, using traditional phrases drawn from earlier renderings, they say:

This translation is traditional in a further sense: it takes seriously the reception of Genesis as scripture. It has become conventional for translators to seek to recover what the text was, without the distraction (or taint) of what the text would later become. Some might consider the intervening millennia a dirty window, and desire to see the text in the clear light of day. That is a good and worthwhile pursuit, but it is not the only one.

Here the reception of Genesis as scripture and its history of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, are taken as a telescope; they do not eliminate the gulf between us and this distant text, but they let us see further and better than we can see on our own. And if Genesis may be interpreted as part of a broader corpus of Scripture, it may also be translated with attention to that corpus. After all, to make a translation is inescapably an act of interpretation. Thus, this translation reads Genesis in a broader corpus of Scripture, one that in the translators’ tradition includes the New Testament.

In practical terms, later meanings are not forced on a clear text. Instead, translation choices are made, at least in a few key instances, that allow the reader to participate in the long conversation about Genesis down through the centuries. The reader is in a position to see the Old in the New and the New in the Old. And, as noted above, the renderings of the Tyndale-KJV tradition are favored (e.g. Gen 3:15 “He shall bruise your head”). At present, it is not conventional for a translator to be candid about considering the later reception of the text. It was not always this way. When Archbishop Richard Bancroft distributed rules for the translators of what would become the King James Version, he included: “When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.” (10-11)

I find this view eminently reasonable and applicable beyond even translation of the text. Tradition can cloud. Tradition can impede. Tradition can stultify. But it need not always do so. Tradition can also clarify, guide, give insight, and function as a telescope rather than a dirty window. Hence the wisdom of engaging with the history of interpretation and the history of doctrine when preaching, teaching, and formulating our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures ed. D.A. Carson

enduring authorityD.A. Carson has spent his career studying and teaching the Bible, with work spanning across a wide range of commentaries, monographs, and articles. He has also been defending its authority as Christian Scripture, God’s Word, for the whole of that time, with multiple individual works and co-edited monographs like Scripture and Truth Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon.

Well, he’s apparently not done, as earlier this year witnessed the release of his massive edited volume (1240 pages!) entitled The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Which makes sense given the reality that controversy surrounding the subject continues unabated. Indeed, it seems to only progress in the level of sophistication and the scope of issues involved.

To get the job done, Carson enlisted the talents of 37 different Evangelical scholars across a wide range of disciplines and competencies in order to critically examine and defend the “formal principle” of Evangelical Protestantism. Within its pages, you’ll find essays on key historical figures and periods (Calvin to Roman Catholicism), theological principles (accommodation and inerrancy), specific textual challenges (OT history & myth), and sundry other questions you may never have thought to ask. It’s really a stunning piece of work.

Now, I have to admit, I’m writing this quasi-review having only read a couple hundred pages of the work, as I have been slowly picking at it essay by essay. But since I wanted to make notice of it this year, I figure I’ll note some high points, how the volume can be used, and one gap I would have liked to see filled.

Fun Essays

I have to say, given my own interests of late, I’ve had a fun time cruising through the historical essays featured in this volume. This is especially the case since it’s so common nowadays to have criticisms of Evangelical views of Scripture’s authority, inerrancy, and so forth come in some version of the form, “Well, you know that the (Fathers, Medievals, X other communion) doesn’t look at Y (inerrancy, accommodation, authority) that way. It’s just those modernist Evangelicals (ie. your Sunday School teacher).”

For that reason, I found Charles Hill’s essay “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine” well worth the time. He helpfully charts the views of authors East and West on various issues like inspiration, authority, and inerrancy, providing large quotes and contextualized discussions that hew away from simple cherry-picking.

Another gem in the historical section is Tony Lane’s essay on “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present.” What was so illuminating about the work was his demonstration of the clear doctrinal development that’s taken place over the last couple hundred years. While current, Post-Vatican II views are much more fluid, open to historical criticism, and so forth, statements from Trent, Vatican I, and earlier documents paint a different story. Pope Leo’s statement in Providentissimus Deus 1893 basically out-Warfields Warfield on inspiration and inerrancy, giving the lie that this is some uniquely Evangelical doctrine.

Of course, Kevin Vanhoozer’s got an essay in the mix, this time dealing with the controversial issue of doctrinal development. “May We Go Beyond What is Written After All?” This is a perennially relevant issue for Protestants who must think through what it means to be “biblical” in our theology, even while we acknowledge that key doctrines (Trinity, Chalcedonian two natures, etc.) are conceptual developments of biblical material, rather than direct quotes from Scripture. Plus, it’s Vanhoozer, so he always makes it fun.

I would go on, but I’ll just emphasize again that there are solid bunch of scholars covering a wide range of issues. Henri Blocher has an essay on dual authorship, both human and divine. Graham Cole reflects on the nature and arrangement of the canon. Bruce Waltke has an essay on myth and history (which should maybe be read in tandem with Glenn Sunshine’s essay on accommodation). Mark Thompson covers the clarity of Scripture. Craig Blomberg tackles Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. James Beilby has an essay on religious epistemology (and there are more in this section). The list just keeps going.

One Thing I’d Have Liked To Have Seen

When it comes to ecumenical discussions, Evangelicals have been typically concerned with two groups: liberals and Roman Catholics. And this book seems to have the issues raised by both covered fairly well. What we haven’t concerned ourselves with enough (in my humble opinion) is Eastern Orthodoxy. This is partly because of the little contact we have typically had with the tradition due to simple geography as well as formation of the Reformation tradition in the West.

Understandable as that is, I think this is a gap because Orthodoxy, first of all, is still a major theological tradition. Second, it has been slowly but surely been exerting greater theological influence worldwide and in the North American academy. It even seems to have a unique appeal for a certain type of younger Evangelical, especially once they encounter their somewhat distinct, non-Roman Catholic, yet non-Protestant position and critique of Protestant views of Sola Scriptura. A survey and analysis of Eastern Orthodox views of Scriptural authority, especially in relation to tradition, would have been helpful for remit of defending the “formal principle” of Evangelicalism as well as in filling out the already broad range of engagement.

That said, on the defensive end, a judicious study of the patristic essay, understanding the actual positions of the Reformers, the clarity of Scripture, doctrinal development, and so forth covers a good many of the issues.

How to Use the Book

Let’s be honest, the odds are that you’re not going to read the book cover to cover. This is so just because of the length as well as because some of the essays probably won’t strike you as immediately interesting. What I would recommend, then, is one of two things.

First, if you kind of already know some issues you’re interested in (say, Karl Barth’s view of Scripture), just cruise through the table of contents and read whatever you like.

If you’re not quite as sure, though, read Carson’s introductory essay (you should probably read it anyways), and then jump to the back. There you’ll find an article by Carson which basically summarizes a great deal of the content of the various essays in short responses to frequently asked questions and challenges. This is so helpful because (a) it’s a bit of a preview of what you’re getting, (b) you start to get a feel for where and when this sort of information is useful, and (c) they’re just good summaries that are immediately useful.

In sum, this is a magnificent piece of scholarship that I’m sure will be a great resource for pastors and scholars in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Machen(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners.

Taken at a this-worldly level, though, he’s got a point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth.  At the socio-historical level, yes, there are changes, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is human nature.

I bring all this up simply to note that the history of philosophy and theology, while developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.

This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history: the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.

J. Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!

One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:

The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”

Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process.

The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.

So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. How did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church.

The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.

We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:

It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.

It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”

Now, of course, this not an exact copy of the of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)

If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts.

Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:

But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.

And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.

All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Herman Bavinck is one of the, if not the, finest, confessionally-Reformed dogmaticians of the last two hundred years. Anyone who has encountered his work and knows the depth of his learning, his sound orthodoxy, and creatively faithful articulation of the Reformed faith in the face of his modern context.

Those same readers, though, could also testify to Bavinck’s credentials as a theologian of the Church catholic, despite his location at the small confessional school at Kampen. Indeed, George Puchinger notes, “History has its ironies but it cannot be denied: the most ecumenical protestant dogmatic theology in fact appeared in Kampen, the place where theology was practiced in the most isolationist manner” (cited in James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pg. 93)

Bavinck’s method of developing doctrines historically and organically certainly played a role in this. In pretty much every locus in the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck takes the time to review each doctrine according to broader cultural material, as well as the Old and New Testament witness. A large bulk of his chapters, though, consist of an extensive historical survey that give an irenic account of each topic from the Fathers (East and West), to the Medievals, through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern period across Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical traditions.

But even Bavinck’s skill as a historian doesn’t cut to the heart of his Reformed Catholicity. References to Augustine, the Cappodocians, Hilary, and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Thomas, Scotus, and the medievals all play a role in his formation of doctrine now. That’s because Bavinck had a depth theology of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church that speaks to his approach to dogmatics.

First, he notes that human knowledge, especially our theology and religion, is only and always grounded in our existence as humans in community. Long before Alasdair MacIntyre came on the scene, Bavinck knew that knowledge was traditioned:

Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.

Of course, that means that we come to knowledge of our faith on in the churches we inhabit–they are the “natural soil” of religion. There are limitations to this, of course. There isn’t one pure theology, or pure church, but many churches and many theologies. And it will be this way until the church reaches the maturity and the unity of the Son of God at the end of all things (Eph. 4). That said, the churches, for all their division, are not disqualified from the purposes of God with respect to our knowledge of the truth.

It is not apart from the existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from the different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them that the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized.

How can Bavinck affirm this in the face of all the division and doctrinal strife? Because he had a solid grasp of the now/not yet quality to the Church’s possession of doctrinal truth. What’s more, he knew that it is to the Church that God has promised the Holy Spirit:

This significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two. He promised his church the Holy Spirit, who would guide it into all truth. This promise sheds a glorious light upon the history of dogma. It is the explication of Scripture, the exposition that the Holy Spirit has given, in the church, of the treasures of the Word.

It is this understanding that reveals the root of Bavinck’s own approach to the broader church tradition in which he stood as a confessional theologian of the Church catholic. Here’s how he conceived of the dogmatician’s job in this light:

Accordingly, the task of the dogmatician is not to draw the material for his dogmatics exclusively from the written confession of his own church but to view it in the total context of the unique faith and life of his church, and then again in the context of the history of the whole church of Christ. He therefore stands on the shoulders of previous generations. He knows he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and lets his witness merge with the voice of these many waters. Every dogmatics ought to be in full accord with and a part of the doxology sung to God by the church of all ages. – Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 86

Bavinck sought to craft a dogmatics that blended its voices into the that of the broader choir of the church throughout the ages, even as he sung it in his own deep, Reformed baritone.

None of this, of course, threatens the Scripture principle. Though the dogmatician is a student of the tradition, learning from what has come before, grateful for that deep cloud of witnesses, Scripture not the Church, is still the self-authenticating norm of all theology. All the same, it is his commitment to Scripture, or rather, the Triune author of Scripture, that authorizes Bavinck’s aim to speak beyond the confines of his own Reformed tradition to speak to the broader Church over which Christ is Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

People Disagreed With Jesus About the Bible Too

Jesus talking“Yeah, but there are so many interpretations of that text, so many denominations claiming that Scripture for their own, you can’t really say there’s a wrong way of reading it.”

If you’ve been in a Bible study or spent more than about 10 minutes surfing pop theology writings, you have probably run across a claim of this sort. The idea is that with so many different readings of Scripture, it’s either arrogant or hopeless to think we can come to a determinate, or correct understanding of it. In other words, the mere fact of interpretive disagreement ought to put us off from claiming very much for our interpretations of Scripture.

This sort of charge can take a couple of different forms.

First, someone can go full-blown, radical skeptic and just say that the text has no inherent, determinate meanings, only uses. Or maybe that it’s a springboard for our own thoughts about God and Jesus and so forth, but no more. In this view, the plasticity, the squishiness, if you will, of interpretation lies within the text.

Second, someone can say that the text means something(s), but the problem lies with us as readers. Given the variety of interpretations, it’s arrogant to claim that we know what it says. We’re fallen, finite, and therefore dubious readers. We ought not claim too much for ourselves. Now, I’ll come back to this, because it’s important to note there’s something to this point. We are sinners and that does affect things.

Here’s the main problem with these views when taken too far, though: Jesus’ own use of Scripture.

Over and over again in his disputes with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus appealed to the Scriptures in order to refute his opponents. One classic text is his debate with the Sadducees over whether there is marriage at the time of the Resurrection or not. They posed a “gotcha” question in order to trap him–which is always silly when you’re dealing with Jesus–and here’s his reply:

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Matthew 22:29-33)

The money quote is that line: “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus accuses them of being wrong precisely because they’re misreading the text that they apparently should have understood. And this isn’t the only time he says this sort of thing. Jesus constantly accuses his opponents as well as his disciples with missing what they should have seen in the text (Mark 7:13; Luke 24:25–26; John 5:39-40).

Jesus’ use of Scripture, then, presumes that the words of the Bible have a determinate meaning (which can be complex!) that can be read and discerned. Jesus isn’t flustered, or worried, nor does begin to expound a radical interpretive skepticism, simply because his opponents disagree with him. He just says they’re wrong because they got the text wrong. They didn’t know how to read it. He did.

That, at least, is rules out the first form of the objection.

You may still try to appeal to the second form, though. And as I said, there’s something to that one. Jesus speaks very clearly about human sin, blindness, and hardness of heart as obstacles that hinder reception and proper interpretation of the Bible. But to stop there ignores a number of realities, a couple of which we can only gesture at.

First, again, Jesus himself does appeal to Scripture in his arguments in such a way that presumes that, then and there, some of his hearers should be able to follow his argument.

Second, pushing deeper, we have to place our thoughts on interpretation within the broader sweep of Jesus’ work of salvation. Jesus doesn’t simply redeem our inner, spiritual souls, nor only our physical bodies, but also our created intellects. We forget that Jesus came to be the light that gives sight to the blind–and not only to those physically, but spiritually blind (Isa. 29:18; John 9). He does so by shining out as the Incarnate, Crucified, and Resurrected one, whose whole purpose was to be the one who reconciles and shows us God’s truth, by being God’s Truth with us (Matthew 1:23), who overcomes the darkness that did not recognize it (John 1).

Third, connected to this, Jesus commissions his apostles to preach and teach the gospel, making disciples on his authority, in his personal presence through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8). As Jesus said to his disciples, to some it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11) through the preaching of the Word. He empowered those apostles to preach a Word which, through the work of the Spirit, overcomes even sinful resistance, lightening even darkened minds and hearts (Eph. 1:17). That is the same apostolic Word which is inscripturated in the New Testament. 

All of this is why we are commended to follow the example of the Jews in Berea, who we’re told were more noble than many other communities Paul encountered. Why? Because in their eagerness, they examined “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans are not berated as arrogant, proud, or interpretively naive. They are faithful in their desire to do the hard work of trusting that in the Scriptures God has spoken in a way that he can be heard if we would but listen.

None of this, of course, removes the difficulties involved with the reality of plurality in interpretation. It does put the brakes on us simply tossing our hands up in the air every time we come upon a disputed verse or issue. There is truth in the text and we can know it. Why? Because Jesus said so.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Concepts You’ll Need To Settle the Domain of the Word

Domain of the wordMost Christian doctrines don’t make sense unless you’re thinking properly about a whole bunch of other doctrines. The recent LA Theology Conference made that point about atonement. Unless you’ve got a good handle on the nature of Jesus’ incarnation or the creation, you probably won’t be able to keep Christ’s atonement in its proper biblical shape. Things go wonky without them (not to mention a few others).

John Webster argues the same thing is true of the doctrine of Scripture in his fairly recent and highly-praised work The Domain of the Word and his earlier, excellent little offering Holy Scripture. Unless you have certain elements in the doctrine of God, the church, and providence in proper order–who God is, how he acts, and what he happens to want to do with the texts–our reflections on what the Bible actually is will inevitably fall short. You have to approach the Bible “indirectly”, as it were, by appreciating its place in the broader scope of the Triune God’s creative and saving communicative activity in history.

While I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of Webster’s rich, subtle reflections on this point, I thought it would be worth roughly and very inelegantly summarizing a small segment early on in the first chapter of The Domain of the Word (pp. 13-17), where he elaborates on the importance of thinking of Scripture with three central concepts in mind: providence, sanctification, and inspiration.

The Word and the Word 

To begin, though, he sets up a bit of a contrast. For about as long as there’s been doctrinal reflection on the nature of Scripture, people have tried to think of it along the lines of an incarnational analogy. Just as Jesus is the Godman, comprised of both Divine and human natures, so the Scriptures are something of a lesser incarnation. The divine Word or words, are given to us in fleshly, human form. Hebrew, Greek, human linguistic structures and mediums are the housing for a message that transcends far beyond that.

Now, this analogy can go in all sorts of directions. Classically, it has been used as a helpful way of understanding the simultaneous humanity and perfection of the Scriptures. Just as Jesus was both human and yet perfect because divine, so God’s written Word is given through human means, yet nonetheless perfect as having come from the mouth of God. More recently, others have used it to talk about Scripture’s usefulness as a divine text that, nonetheless, exhibits the limitations and, in some constructions, errors and sins of all humanity (much to the chagrin of anybody who’s paying attention to the Christological implications).

In order to avoid undue divinizing of Scripture, creating an unfortunate blurring of the Creator/creature distinction, as well as a host of other difficulties, Webster points us in a different direction, and suggest that we locate our idea within the three concepts we already mentioned. In this way, Webster wants to capture the way Scripture fits in God’s various workings, beginning from the most general (providence) to the most specific (inspiration).

Three Key Terms

First, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the doctrine of providence reminds us that the various words, passages, texts, and books of the Bible were written in the midst of the history over which God is Lord. A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without the Father’s consent, how much more the Scriptures which form his self-testimony? In other words, we need to desecularize our view of the processes of culture and history which produced these texts (and all other texts for that matter). This isn’t to deny the human, cultural and historical influences on the way Scripture came to be the way it is, but it is to remember that all of history’s movements come together under God’s hands. When you look at the historical process, you need to realize you’re not seeing all the action when you’ve accounted for human psychological, political, and even theological motivations. Father, Son, and Spirit rule over history governing, preserving, and upholding all its activities–even that of the production of Scripture. God’s providence doesn’t compete or deny the natural and the human, but sustains and underlies it.

Second, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the idea of sanctification reminds us of the important work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and histories of the writers of Scripture. Humans can be sanctified by the Spirit, set apart as holy, in order to serve as God’s ambassadors and mouthpieces. So can the human words of those apostles and prophets that God called and commissioned to proclaim his words to the nations. For Webster, the Spirit’s work of sanctification is the middle term between providence and inspiration, and speaks of the Spirit’s preparation and setting apart of the particular persons and processes of the production of Scripture (events, literary elements, redaction, reception, etc). The Spirit set apart the prophets (Jeremiah, Paul), cleanses their lips (Isaiah), and specifically teaches them how to speak his words (Peter). He does this, not by denying their humanity, but calling it, redeeming it, and perfecting it by way of purification. Scripture is Holy because of the Spirit’s work in consecrating these instruments (humans and their histories) for his own.

Third, we come to the final term of ‘inspiration.’ This is the final and most specific term which refers, not to God’s broader process, or some generic notion of inspiredness that all literature falls under. Instead, it is this specific superintendence and supervenience of God in and through his human servants who speak specific words as the Spirit moves them. Webster says we must be careful not to separate this from either providence or sanctification as if God’s inspiration is some intrusive overturning of human, creaturely processes. It’s not a detached miracle that competitively suspends the human dimension, resulting in a mechanical activity, but an organic movement by the Spirit to heal particular authors, Paul, or Peter, so their specific word given in Scripture can be those through which the Spirit addresses us.

Webster concludes this section by noting that the resulting words provided by the Spirit are not some arbitrary deposit of ‘inspiredness’ that does its work all by itself apart from God’s continuing use of it. Instead, they are a settlement of the Word. After God has breathed out these words of Holy Scripture, we have reached a definitive stage in the publication, or revelation of God’s Word that determines all future hearing and receiving of the Word. After this, we don’t need more inspiration, or a more comprehensive supplement that goes further on beyond what the apostles have written. Rather, we need the renewal of heart that leads to listening and receiving the Word that has already been spoken for what it is.

Of course, in looking at this inadequate little summary, the key doctrine underlying all three of these terms is thinking through the nature of divine activity. God is the ultimate root of all Christian doctrine. Human epistemic limitations due to finitude and sin, social formation of language, history, and so forth, are not the final, determining factors here. It’s not that we ought not consider these realities, but as we do, we dare not forget that it is the Triune God sets the limits to the Domain of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria