‘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?

Be your own Pope: On the Tyranny of Individualism

D.H. Williams sounds a stunning warning against Free Church Protestantism and its dismissal of the church’s creedal heritage, and with it the elevation of the individual to “Pope-like” status.

“[F]or all its theological and historical importance, the Protestant Reformation should not be the sole means of identity for any Christian. It was (is) not the primary basis on which the Christian faith was founded—something the Reformers themselves knew quite well. Here I am referring to how one ‘reads’ the history of Christianity. … [T]he Protestant mind has been shaped in specific ways to think about itself as the Christian faith, not as a reform movement of Catholicism, but as a restoration of the apostolic church and therefore a dismissal of everything that followed the New Testament church and was prior to the ‘Reformation.’ In the name of rejecting ecclesiological authority as ‘hierarchy’ or ‘tradition’ as theological manipulation and bondage, we have instead created a hermeneutic of suspicion and have invested every biblically informed conscience (instead of a pope) to speak ex cathedra. It is a Pyrrhic victory for Free church Protestantism when the net effect of its teaching results in the replacing of the tyranny of the magisterium with the tyranny of individualism [Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 201]

I have seen the harmful effects of this tendency on more than one occasion.  I think of many Free Church believers I have known who operate under the unconscious pressure of picking up their Bible and reading it as if no one has ever read it before. With this comes the concomitant weight of sifting and weighing matters on which the Church has spoken in her creedal heritage, an interpretive weight one should never bear alone.

Perhaps, to take D.H. Williams’ point (among many other contemporary and not-so-contemporary Protestant voices), the Church’s shared creedal heritage is indispensable for the Church’s reading of her Scriptures today, even in the Free Church tradition of Protestantism. Without accepting a hierarchical ecclesiology, perhaps the Protestant Free Church tradition would be greatly served by a modest return to a self-consciously “ruled reading” of the Bible in which a community’s reading of the Scriptures is carried out together with its creedal heritage: allowing the rule of faith generally found in the Nicene Creed to consciously guide and train a community’s reading, reminding it of the heart of the Gospel, and serving its faithful proclamation.

(Postscript: This is a conversation also being had among Anglicans. See, Ephraim Radner and George Sumner, The Rule of Faith: Scripture Canon and Creed in a Critical Age (Morehouse, 1998)).

The Word of God for the People of God: A Review

With classes wrapped up and grades finally in I am starting a summer review series on the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). A chapter in my book on theologies of retrieval will survey this as one of several instances of retrieval for the life of the Church, so I will be spending the next month or so working through recent publications.

I begin with J. Todd Billings’ The Word of God for the People of God (Eerdmans, 2010), a timely and well-crafted addition to the growing—but often highly specialized and technical—body of scholarship on theological hermeneutics and interpretation. This book, however, is aimed toward readers who Billings describes as having a love for Scripture and Christian ministry, but have “no idea why they should be interested in ‘the theological interpretation of Scripture.'”

The question is well put, and I have had a number of conversations with students and fellow academics about the very same. In fact, an NT scholar candidly asked me not long ago (without hiding a bit of skepticism) to define TIS. From what I have seen in the literature, Billings’ definition is an excellent place to start (see also the April issue of IJST):

the theological interpretation of Scripture is a multifaceted practice of a community of faith reading the Bible as God’s instrument of self-revelation and saving fellowship. It is not a single, discrete method or discipline; rather, it is a wide range of practices we use toward the goal of knowing God in Christ through Scripture (xii).

Billings’ treatment of TIS stands out because of its consistent attention to the theological/doctrinal commitments that fund TIS. Continue reading

Scooping Out the Moon

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).

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Theological Interpretation & Sola Scriptura—Is it even Possible?

Guest Post: Ben Witherington III

I was talking the other day to a person who had come from a ‘Word Only’ Christian Church.  These folks take the Bible alone as their authority—even the Holy Spirit has no independent voice in these circles, nor does the church and its traditions.  What is perhaps most striking about this extreme example of sola Scriptura is the lack of awareness by its practitioners that they themselves are violating this shibboleth all the time when it comes to theology and praxis.  For example, ‘Word only’ folks most definitely have a rather developed theology of baptism which cannot be found in detail in the New Testament.  Even more ironically, the theology they have of the New Testament being Scripture is not fully grounded in the New Testament itself.

For example, nowhere in the New Testament itself is there a canon list which delimits what is and should be included in the NT corpus and what books should be excluded.  Canon lists are external to the corpus of the NT itself.  There are of course many other examples that one could cite to make this point, but this one must suffice.   If ‘sola Scriptura’ means the Bible only as an authority for the church, then there are inherent problems that ensue.  If it merely means that the Bible is the final norm, the final authority of faith and practice, that is another matter entirely.  The latter approach does not rule out theological and ethical development of thought beyond, but consistent with, what is in the canon.

In my recent two volume work, The Indelible Image, (Inter Varsity Press)  I have argued at some length that what we have in the New Testament is theologizing and ethicizing into specific situations. In other words, what we have is the doing of theology and the doing of ethics.  We do not have any systematic theology books in the NT or any ethics compendiums in the NT.  All of the 27 documents in the NT are purpose-driven, to use a now well-worn and hackneyed phrase.  One conclusion that one has to draw from this is that responsible theological interpretation, like responsible ethical interpretation of the NT, requires development beyond what the Scriptures say, precisely because what is in the text is ‘partial and piecemeal’,  there is an incompleteness to it.

Take for instance the theology of Scripture itself, or even the theology of the Trinity or a theology of baptism.  What you find in the NT is raw data with which one can construct a viable theology of a three-personed God or a viable theology of the inspiration and authority of these NT books or a viable theology of baptism, but I use the word construct advisedly.  Continue reading

The Bible in the Economy of Salvation: Telford Work on Scripture

Living and Active

 [A]n adequate doctrine of Scripture [contra B.B. Warfield and C. Hodge] depends circularly on the very doctrines that Scripture helps establish. It fits equally well at the end of a systematic theology as at its beginning. Indeed, it arguably fits best throughout one’s theological system, developing along with its other categories in order to inform them and be informed by them at every point. The Bible is a truly rich theological resource, as both prophetic and apostolic foundation for Christian doctrine and a beneficiary of it [...]

Systematic bibliology…orders the various dimensions of Scripture according to the divine economy of salvation: The Bible saves because of its divine character and agency. The Bible has a divine character and agency in order to form, reform, and govern God’s chosen people” (Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation [2002], 319-20).

“The Bible is endlessly a surprise”: Brueggemann on Scripture

Brueggemann“The Bible is inherently the live Word of God that addresses us concerning the character and will of the gospel-giving God, empowering us to an alternative life in the world…Given inherency…the Bible is endlessly a surprise beyond us…

The Bible is not a fixed, frozen, readily exhausted read; it is rather a “script” always reread, through which the Spirit makes new…Nobody makes the final read; nobody’s read is final or inerrant, precisely because the Key Character in the book who creates, redeems, and consummates is always beyond us in holy hiddenness” (Walter Brueggemann, Struggling with Scripture (2002), pp. 11, 12, 13)

Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Performing the Scriptures

I return now to Nicholas Lash’s book Theology on the Way to Emmaus, looking at the chapter entitled: “Performing the Scriptures.” He starts with a comparison:

There are some texts the interpretation of which seems to be a matter of, first, ‘digging’ the meaning out of the text and then, subsequently, putting the meaning to use, applying it in practice. That might be a plausible description of what someone was doing who, armed with a circuit diagram, tried to mend his television set. But it would be a most misleading description of what a judge is doing when, in the particular case before him, he interprets the law. In this case, interpretation is a creative act that could not have been predicted by a computer because it is the judge’s business to ‘make’ the law by his interpretation of precedent. What the law means is decided by his application of it” (38).

Texts, in other words, have genre’s and, if I can put it this way, teleologies. Lash, furthermore, compares interpretation to the performance of a musical text  – a score – stating, “Even if the performance if technically faultless (and is, in that sense, a ‘correct’ interpretation) we might judge it to be lifeless, unimaginative” (40). Therefore, with some texts, interpretation does not properly take place until the texts are truly performed. Lash offers a brief summary: “…Christian practice, as interpretive action, consists in the performance of texts which are construed as ‘rendering’, bearing witness to, one whose words and deeds, discourse and suffering, ‘rendered’ the truth of God in human history. The performance of the New Testament enacts the conviction that these texts are most appropriately read as the story of Jesus, the story of everyone else, and the story of God” (42).

Reading the Bible therefore is not merely a private reading but is fundamentally communal. The biblical texts, Lash argues, is somewhat like a musical score or a script, but, unlike a symphony or a play it doesn’t end. The biblical texts bleeds beyond the boundaries of our private lives into everything we do and all that we are (alliteration is for James).

Lash therefore turns to offer some broad rules to this performance. First, there is a limited range of options when it comes to an interpretation of the text which is constrained by authorial intent. Second, the performance must be true to the questions the texts seek to answer. Lash explains:

To put it very simply: as the history of the meaning of the text continues, we can and must tell the story differently. But we do so under constraint: what we may not do, if it is this text which we are to continue to perform, is to tell a different story” (44).

As an example of how this might look, Lash turns to the Eucharist. It is here where the community of Christ performs the story of Christ, or, as we have seen in my posts on Mikoski’s book, baptism could serve in this function as well. Practicing death, as it were, becomes the basic Christian posture, as we drink the blood and eat the flesh, and as we enter the community by being drown in the waters of death. We perform that which highlights the end of this drama, and the beginning of a new drama; or, better, we point towards the fulfillment, reconciliation and perfection of this drama.

What are the implications of this kind of read? Any thoughts? What are the upsides and downsides to this?

Word of God: Part5

I will now consider the final chapter of Timothy Ward’s volume Words of Life, entitled “The Bible and Christian Life: The Doctrine of Scripture Applied.” The first issue Ward sets his sights on is clarifying the oft invoked phrased sola scriptura. He explains that there has often been a misunderstanding that the Reformers were somehow denying tradition in asserting Scripture alone. Ward states, “In other words the Reformers had a high regard for the authority of inherited traditions of biblical interpretation, and of the views of earlier generations of widely respected theologians, as well as for the church’s role in providing a context in which Scripture can properly be understood” (146).

Ward’s emphasis in his discussion of sola scriptura tracks along similar lines as D.H. Williams phrase nuda scriptura. Williams, like Ward, wants to emphasize that the sola here does not mean “with nothing else,” but is used in reference to the authority of the Scriptures. It isn’t a large leap from a misunderstanding of sola scriptura to the modern evangelical notion that “all that is necessary is me and my Bible,” what Keith Mathison refers to as solo scriptura.

Ward moves on to cover some other issues, one of which is preaching. Continue reading

Word of God: Part 4

Continuing our look at Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life, we now turn to his doctrinal outline of the attributes of Scripture. He begins by expositing the necessity, sufficiency, clarity and authority of Scripture. I skip over these here to move on to what has been an area of interest to this blog in the past: inerrancy and infallibility. Ward’s location of the doctrine is a helpful place to start:

What I shall say here about the question of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture should not be thought of as the doctrinal climax to which the previous sections in this chapter have been leading. Nor should it even be thought of as a section to be set alongside Scripture’s necessity, sufficiency, clarity, and consequent authority, equal in significance to those topics. Instead the claim that Scripture is inerrant is an outworking of the authority of Scripture. Specifically it is an outworking of the trustworthiness of Scripture…” (130).

In an important follow-up statement, Ward claims, “In other words I shall argue that inerrancy is a true statement to make about the Bible, but is not in the top rank of significant things to assert about the Bible” (130). Infallibility, as Ward defines it, means that the Bible does not deceive, while inerrancy adds the additional claim that it does not “assert any errors of fact.” Ward offers 3 qualifications against misinformed critiques of inerrancy: Continue reading

The Word of God: Part 3

Ward continues his proposal with a look at the Trinity and Scripture. In my mind, this kind of approach could prove to be the most interesting. Ward’s approach begins with more biblical work, where he suggests that, “every literary genre and form within Scripture is linked directly to Scripture’s basic covenantal form and function.” In his words,

Commandments declare the stipulations of the covenant. Prophecy and epistles, in particular, expound and apply those stipulations in specific contexts; they are, in effect, the covenant preached in different situations. Narrative relates the unfolding events in which God’s people have successively trusted and rejected him, and through which God has faithfully enacted the consequences of his promises, whether in blessing or judgment” (55).

Ward continues on to ground all biblical genres in “Scripture’s covenantal form and function.” At first glance this seems either overly-reductionistic or uninteresting. I’m not sure which. Interestingly enough, the very next paragraph Ward claims, “Yet to see the Bible as ‘the book of the covenant’ is not simplistic or reductionist. It is rather to recognize Scripture’s profound role in the relationship between humanity and God that God wants to establish” (56)! Ward’s basic claim here is that Scripture serves the church by being the ongoing covenant-declaration. To do so he invokes speech-act theory. Keeping in stride with his previous claims, Ward suggests, “It follows that to speak of Scripture as the book of the covenant, the ongoing form in which God repeats his covenant promise in the world, ought to lead us to speak of Scripture as in some sense a mode of God’s presence in the world” (60). Continue reading

The Word of God: Part 2

Continuing our look at Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life, I want to focus our attention words of Christ. Ward ties Christ’s words in with the idea of “fullness.” In his words, “Moreover, the ‘fullness’ of God, which God was pleased to have dwell in Christ, also included the words Christ spoke…The most likely implication is that these words were given by the Father to Christ in eternity, and not exclusively during his earthly life, such as during his childhood, or his adult life before the beginning of his public ministry…” (38) In my mind, it is a bit odd to take passages from John (which is what Ward is working with, see John 8:28b, 12:49-50; 17:8a), which claim that Jesus does not speak on his own and that he speaks what he is commanded by the Father, to somehow entail a conversation between the Father and the Son in eternity. Jesus, then, is simply repeating what he was told. Furthermore, I think it is an incredible jump to claim, in Ward’s words,

We can say, then, that these statements by Jesus provide a glimpse into the eternal life of the triune God. It is a glimpse of the Father preparing for the appearing of the Son in human form by giving him words he would speak during his earthly ministry” (38).

Certainly, in a minimalistic sense, these passages in John offer some insight into the mission of the Son in relation to the Father, fair enough. But it still seems odd to me that we have this Father-Son dialogue where Jesus is learning what to say. It somewhat reminds me of the breakdown of the pactum salutis which begins to sound like a committee meeting in the triune life. I’m just not sure this kind of analysis is helpful. Continue reading