‘Jesus Said Nothing about…’

I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue.  This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.

Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day.  First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones.  The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood.  However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).  Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc.  In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.

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Bibliolatry or Biblical Theology?

A number of the essays brought together in B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of  Scripture contain meticulous analyses of different items pertinent to the Bible’s take on the Bible  (in one of them he spends a fair amount of time on what to make of verbs without a named subject  [e.g. legei] in the New Testament introducing a reference to the Old Testament, for example).  In  ‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, he canvasses some of the Old Testament texts which were not  records of divine speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 1:16; Heb. 3:7) introduced with a  ‘God says’ or the like as well as some of the Old Testament texts which were records of divine  speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 9:17; Gal. 3:8) introduced with a ‘Scripture says’ or  the like.  He comments,

They indicate a certain confusion in current speech between ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’, the outgrowth of a deep-seated conviction that the word of Scripture is the word of God.  It was not ‘Scripture’ that spoke to Pharaoh or gave this promise to Abraham, but God.  But ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’ lay so close together in the minds of the writers of the New Testament that they could naturally speak of ‘Scripture’ doing what Scripture records God as doing.  It was, however, even more natural to them to speak casually of God saying what the Scriptures say….The words put into God’s mouth in each case are not words of God recorded in the Scriptures, but just the Scripture words themselves.  When we take the two classes of passages together…we may perceive how close the identification of the two was in the minds of the writers of the New Testament (‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 148).

If Warfield is in the right, then it seems certain accusations of bibliolatry should give way to affirmations of the presence of biblical theology vis-a-vis the Bible itself.  Is this argument too simplistic post-Barth?  Does the bibliology of Barth and staunch Barthians in hesitating straightforwardly to identify Scripture as the word of God run aground on the Bible’s (explicit and implicit) testimony concerning itself?  Thoughts?

Perspicuity and Postmodernity

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.

Any thoughts?

“What sort of reader should I be?”: on interpretive virtues

What I am trying to generate with this question is some discussion about the role of virtue in the act of interpreting Scripture. Is there such a role? What would that role entail? What would it look like for the everyday reader of Holy Scripture?

The predominance of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture has made it difficult, or at least not self-evident, to speak about the place of interpretive virtue. For example, when reading Augustine’s On Christian Teaching with my students, they don’t quite know what to do with his interpretive model. Augustine first outlines the necessity of the reader’s fear of the Lord, holiness, and obedience to Scripture (even if we don’t fully understand it!) prior to the stage he describes as “knowledge” (II.11-26). Without the prior establishment of the reader’s disposition before God and their relationship to him through obedience, Augustine simply doesn’t consider him or her ready to pursue the knowledge of the Scriptures we would most readily associate with “finding its meaning.”

To give us someplace from which to begin, we might take the list of interpretive virtues provided by Richard Briggs in his recent book The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Baker, 2010). Briggs’ study is an extended exploration of what kind of reader one should be in order to be “best situated to receive, understand, and embody the life-transforming concerns of the Old Testament.” He lists the following five virtues, and I will give you an extended look at the later four: humility, wisdom, trust, love, and receptivity.

Wisdom – probably the strongest candidate for a virtue greatly to be sought after by the reader of Scripture [...]

Trust – the virtue of hermeneutical trust is just beginning to reemerge in recent theological reflection after a lengthy period where suspicion has been so easily the default mode of biblical interpretation [...] Continue reading

The Fruit of Doctrine

As most of you know who have followed Theology Forum for any length of time, we have a real interest in the nature and task of theology and the spiritual aspect inherent in being a theologian and to “doing” theology. As we’ve mused on what this might mean, I have looked at several spiritual theologians, and, recently, reviewed Mark McIntosh’s volume Divine Teaching. There, as I noted in my post, he suggests that the outcome of a theology must speak to the quality of the theologizing itself. In other words, good theology will bear good fruit, we may say.

In light of this, I was wondering your thoughts about the inevitable move backwards – judging theology by bad fruit. Could we, for instance, attack an evangelical doctrine of Scripture by pointing out the reality that, were you to go to ETS, you are more likely to find a paper on the use of the aorist-passive in Greco-Roman shipping industry between the years 20-27 than you are to find a paper on a dogmatic account of Scripture? Along these lines, could we point out the seemingly backward use of integration in evangelical theology, commandeering history, philosophy and psychology well before doing any serious dogmatic work – as fruit of a sick tree?

How far can we take some of these issues? Is this a valid theological critique? I’m very aware of how this can be used poorly, but is there a place for this kind of analysis?

Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Daniel Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Baker Academic, 2008), 221pp. [review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

Daniel Treier’s Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice is a timely and largely helpful introduction of the growing, diverse movement to recover a distinctively theological interpretation of Scripture broadly known as ‘theological interpretation’ or ‘theological hermeneutics’.

As a mapping exercise, the book provides a useful orientation to the movement’s dominant trajectories, prominent figures, and to the issues most pressing for evangelicals (e.g. preoccupation with authorial intent).

Because Treier’s primary aims are introduction and mapping, his own constructive proposals for theological interpretation are mostly downplayed. However, in those moments when he transitions from exposition to argument, we get tantalizing glimpses of what will hopefully occupy his full attention in subsequent works. For example, with his evangelical readers in mind, Treier searches for a middle ground between ‘reader-response’ approaches and what sometimes appears to be a complete disregard for the ‘reader’ in evangelical hermeneutics. Following a close reading of Gadamer and some discussion of the appropriateness of the evangelical rejection of relativism, Treier makes a measured argument for ‘interpretive plurality’. ‘One gets the idea’ Treier remarks,

that we would have no need for interpretation in an ideal world. But in some respects diversity is a creational and pentecostal reality: Continue reading

Asking Jesus into your Heart??

Why do many Christians say, “Ask Jesus into your heart”?

I understand what this refers to, a relationship with God through Christ, but find it curious that non-biblical and potentially misleading language is the most important language for evangelism among many evangelical Christians. In a recent blog post, Klyne Snodgrass reminds us that neither Jesus nor the other New Testament writers come even close to saying, “Invite Jesus into your heart so you can go to heaven.” He continues,

Paul rarely speaks of Christ in us-at most six times, but at least 164 times he has the Greek expression en Christō or its equivalent, which can express a variety of ideas. Clearly though, being in Christ is a much more powerful image than Christ being in us. Faith is not merely a mental activity. As Sanday and Headlam’s old ICC commentary on Romans put it, faith involves “enthusiastic adhesion” (p. 34). Faith is that which attaches you to Jesus. Nothing less is saving faith.

John’s language focuses too on attachment to Jesus. While he speaks both of Christ being in us and our being in him, he expresses both ideas with the word menein, “to remain.” Christians are people so attached to Jesus that he remains in them and they remain in him. (emphasis mine)

Assuming Snodgrass is right (and I think he is), how could we speak about life with God in ways more disciplined by the Scriptures – ways other than “Ask Jesus into your heart”? For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus the issue specifically on children for three reasons. Continue reading