I’m in between two parts of a review of Merold Westphal’s introduction to philosophical hermeneutics and have been reflecting on the importance of approaching Scripture according to its peculiar nature and subject matter, whatever may be gleaned from a general theory of texts and textual interpretation. In keeping with those musings, I came across this comment from Irish Puritan James Ussher (1581-1656) in his defense of the clarity of Scripture:
Scripture is our Father’s Letter unto us, and his last Will to show us what Inheritance he leaveth us. But Friends write Letters, and Fathers their wills, plain (A Body of Divinity [Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007], p. 18).
Ussher gestures toward something that we would do well to remember in a time when we are keen to avoid the appearance of epistemic arrogance or crudeness, namely, that the Bible is a covenantal book originated and commandeered by someone who actually wants us to understand it and, indeed, as our Creator and Lord, is eminently capable of accomodating his speech to the human intellect. The subject matter, the divine authorship, and the redemptive, covenantal telos of Scripture compel an admission of its perspicuity, even in an era rather skeptical of human noetic prowess. To vie for the possibility of real textual understanding vis-a-vis the biblical texts is not to sink into “modernism” but to think theologically about Scripture and to keep in step with the emphases of classic Protestant bibliology.
This volume is Westphal’s contribution to Baker’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series, edited by James K. A. Smith. For those interested, the series’ namesake blog can be found here. Westphal announces in the preface his hope that the book will prove beneficial to academic theologians, pastors, and lay persons, whose labors in biblical interpretation tend, respectively, to be written (i.e., published), oral (i.e., preached), and silent (i.e., developed in private Bible study). The subtitle, Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, is indicative of the author’s aim to explore potential contributions of philosophical reflection on interpretation in service to the ecclesial task of attending to Scripture. Westphal defends his foray into the realm of philosophical theory by suggesting that, when theology resists acquaintance with philosophy, it is then most susceptible to being unwittingly ensnared by a particular philosophical tradition. Moreover, he says, philosophical hermeneutics may well possess positive resources for the project of biblical interpretation. As one of Westphal’s purposes is to familiarize readers with the influence of presuppositions in interpretation without sliding into relativism, the preface also anticipates charting a course between “hermeneutical despair (‘anything goes’)” and “hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation).”
In the first chapter Westphal chides naïve realism’s “claim to immediacy” in understanding reality in general and textual meaning in particular. He suggests that no one denies realism’s fundamental acknowledgment of mind-independent reality but invokes Kant to caution against claiming that said reality is pristinely mirrored in the mind of the knowing subject. For Kant (and, apparently, Westphal), the external world is filtered through the mediating categories of the human mind; the act of “just seeing” belongs to God alone. Against realism’s intuitive grasp of things in themselves, Westphal avers that, in view of human finitude, “theists…have a sound theological reason for being Kantian antirealists” (19). Though he sympathizes with the desire to deny the inevitability of interpretation in the name of preserving objectivity in knowledge, Westphal has in mind to curb the “rush to immediacy,” using the story of the elephant and the blind men to underscore that perspectival diversity can signal complementarity rather than relativism.
Early on in my summer break I’ve been enjoying the writings of John Owen (a man of impeccable fashion sense). Chapter XXV of “The Greater Catechism” in volume one of his published works asks, “What is the communion of saints?” The prescribed response:
An holy conjunction between all God’s people, wrought by their participation in the same Spirit, whereby we are all made members of that one body whereof Christ is the head.
Interestingly, in a footnote attached to “conjunction,” Owen comments, “By virtue of this, we partake in all the good and evil of the people of God throughout the world.”
The statement is, I think, a compelling warning against distancing ourselves from the church in moments when we wish only to criticize it. For those of us immersed in the study of theology, it implies, among other things, that we’re not free to berate a perceived theological stupor in the church without acknowledging that we ourselves live and move in the sphere of God’s people. The real question, then, concerns how to help in the pursuit of theological maturity with and among the people to whom we are stubbornly (and blessedly!) linked.
Mention of the two kingdoms schema of the Christ-culture relation often educes among evangelicals two judgments: 1) the two kingdoms doctrine is peculiarly the stuff of Lutheran theology and 2) it is seriously inadequate with respect to understanding the biblical concept of the kingdom of God and prodding Christians properly to discharge their duty to influence society. In other words, it lacks credentials vis-à-vis catholicity, biblical theology, and theological ethics. For example, in D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, the section devoted to the two kingdoms doctrine is entitled “Luther and His Heirs” and expresses concern about the doctrine undermining “a unifying approach to knowledge” and either pushing Christians out of the public square or legitimizing a state church (pp. 210-12). N. T. Wright is more severe in his criticism, musing that traditional interpreters of Paul doubt Wright’s exegesis because Luther’s two kingdoms theology has suppressed the Pauline notion of ecclesial unity as a politically suggestive witness to the powers (Justification, pp. 173-74). Add to this mix the fact that a younger generation (my generation) of Christians has fiercely taken an interest in the concept and pursuit of “social justice” and we have a seemingly unstoppable impetus against the two kingdoms framework. “Christ the transformer of culture” is the more attractive option these days.
Regarding the historical theology dimension of the discussion, it is worth noting that Calvin advocates the two kingdoms doctrine in Institutes (see esp. 3.19 and 4.20). In other words, Luther is not alone. In fact, David VanDrunen’s book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought makes the case for a two kingdoms thread persistently running throughout the Reformed tradition.
Leaving aside for the moment the historical theology question, I would like to venture some comments pertaining to the two kingdoms take on the biblical narrative and cultural and political engagement with the aim of commending its explanatory power and practical import and with the hope of generating some conversation and feedback. Some of these thoughts will be more controversial than others, so let me know what you think.
It’s difficult to plod through Barth’s Church Dogmatics without being tempted to post something on one of the lines he takes or even simply the adventurous and often moving quality of his prose. The section in CD handling “the knowability of the Word of God” is a fascinating one and, though I would parse the concept of the word of God differently than Barth does, it is one that I find instructive in several ways for contemporary evangelicals.
Barth repeatedly voices his skepticism about the event of the coming of the Word of God to human persons engendering a knowledge of the Word such that the knowability of the Word begins properly to belong to its human addressees. He mentions the possibility that the event of the Word of God is helped along in its epistemic work by the human addressee’s “potentiality which is brought by man as such, which consists in a disposition native to him as man, in an organ, in a positive or even a negative property that can be reached and discovered by self-reflection.” However, Barth is quick to add another possibility:
It might be also that this event did not so much presuppose the corresponding possibility on man’s part as bring it with it and confer it on man by being event, so that it is man’s possibility without ceasing (as such) to be wholly and utterly the possibility proper to the Word of God and to it alone. We might also be dealing with a possibility of knowledge which can be made intelligible as a possibility of man, but in contrast to all others, only in terms of the object of knowledge or the reality of knowledge and not at all in terms of the subject of knowledge, i.e., man as such (CD, I/1, p. 194).
The open theism debates may have cooled down a while back, but inquiring about divine foreknowledge still leads us into some weighty issues in the field of theology proper, issues of the perennially significant sort when it comes to the church’s understanding of God and his relationship to the world and its human inhabitants. In light of this, I thought it might be worth unpacking and discussing Aquinas’ article in the Summa which asks “whether the knowledge of God is of future contingent things” (Ia.14.13).
Under this article there are three potential objections against the claim that God’s knowledge includes future contingent things. Objection one judges that, since 1) the knowledge of God is the cause of all things known (see Ia.14.8) and 2) the knowledge of God is necessary with respect to things known, the necessary cause (God’s knowledge) must yield a necessary effect (the thing known), rendering future things not contingent but necessary. Objection two declares this proposition to be true: “If God knew that this thing will be, it will be.” However, the antecedent here is eternal and signified as past and, therefore, necessary, meaning that its consequent (the being of a thing known) also is necessary. Objection three reasons from the dynamics of human knowledge to the dynamics of divine knowledge: “even what we ourselves know must necessarily be…and, of course, the knowledge of God is much more certain than ours.” In short, if something is known, it must necessarily be. The conclusion, then, is that God knows no future contingent thing. This has the feel of an analytic statement: divine knowledge by definition cannot have as its object any future contingent thing. It’s interesting to note that the objections seem generally to affirm God’s knowledge of future things but question their contingency, whereas the open theists seem generally to affirm the contingency of future things but question God’s knowledge of these.
What has Aquinas to say in response? He contradicts the objections by quoting Psalm 32:15 as testimony to God’s knowledge of all the works of human beings. But, inasmuch as our works are subject to the freedom of our will, they are contingent. Thus, with the help of a fairly modest inference, Aquinas is able to draw from Old Testament Scripture to maintain that God does indeed have knowledge of future contingent things. From here Aquinas answers that God’s knowledge includes things actual and possible and, since some of these are future and contingent to us, God enjoys knowledge of future contingent things.
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable. Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.
One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147). Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death. Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship. The Father loses his fatherhood as well. The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80). Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation. The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.
Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way. Continue reading