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.
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?
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.
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)).
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
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).
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