An Ever-Increasing Attribute

For too long I’ve not posted on the theology of my favorite thinker, Herman Bavinck.  His bibliology is  among the most impressive features of the Reformed Dogmatics and it remains instructive for any of us  today who hold that theology is ultimately a matter of reflecting on and elaborating the divine teaching of  Holy Scripture.  Here I’ll sketch briefly his understanding of the necessity of Scripture in hopes of  generating some discussion.

In line with classic Protestant thinking about the Bible, Bavinck contends for its necessity over against  Roman Catholicism, mysticism, and rationalism.  Rome, says Bavinck, has abandoned the notion that  Scripture funds the being of the church and has propped up the church with its teaching office as autopistos (trustworthy in and of itself) and sufficient for norming doctrine and praxis.  Mysticism also disregards the necessity of Scripture but by undervaluing the external word and overemphasizing the importance of the internal word delivered to the heart of the individual believer in communion with God and by the Holy Spirit.  Rationalism too undermines the necessity of Scripture by identifying that internal teaching of the Spirit with the natural light of reason and suggesting that the latter provides all the furnishings for the content of faith.

However, on supposition of God’s decision to address his people in the canonical writ, we’re obliged to affirm the necessity of Scripture.  For Bavinck, the Bible itself is an instance of God’s self-revelation and, therefore, the church cannot be its author.  The church “may be older than the written word, but it is definitely younger than the spoken word” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:470).  In other words, absolutely, the word creates and governs the church, even if subsequently God organically (not mechanically) employs human agents to inscripturate the word for future generations.  With the passing of the first century, “the time-distance from the apostles grew greater, their writings became more important, and the necessity of these writings gradually intensified.  The necessity of Scripture, in fact, is not a stable but an ever-increasing attribute” (ibid.).  The Bible, then, is a divine gift for the transmission, preservation, and propagation of the word of God: “The sound of a voice passes away, but the written letter remains” (ibid., 1:471).

Intriguingly, the historical amplification of this attribute concerns not just the death of the apostles but also the phenomena of modern life:

To the degree that humankind becomes larger, life becomes shorter, the memory weaker, science more extensive, error more serious, and deception more brazen, the necessity of Holy Scripture increases.  Print and the press are gaining in significance in every area of life.  The invention of printing was a giant step to heaven and to hell….It is true that religious literature remains for many people the primary nourishment for their spiritual life.  Still, this proves nothing against the necessity of Holy Scripture.  Since directly or indirectly, all Christian truth is drawn from it.  The diverted stream also gets its water from the source (ibid., 1:472).

More could be said, but any thoughts on Bavinck’s theological moves or the implications for the proliferation of both skeptical and religious literature that we currently see?

Suggestions? Primary Texts for Patristic Theosis

Funny how things come together around here on TF from time to time, always unplanned of course. While Kyle has been sparking our thinking about theosis I have been meeting with one of our best and brightest students to structure an independent study on the topic. We are at the point now of identifying primary source material within the Patristic era, but I find myself out of my depth; this just isn’t my era.

So I am quite interested to receive a few suggestions from you. Where might I send my intrepid student to find the best Patristic voices on salvation as theosis? Irenaeus? Gregory of Nazianzus? Athanasius?

Questioning Inspiration

I am reading through A. T. B. McGowan’s volume on scripture, and he argues that we should jettison the term “inspiration” from our theological vocabulary – thinking it does not do justice to the original Greek, the appropriation of the term, or the contemporary usage. He prefers “Divine Spiration”. What do we think? It has the advantage of pushing back the discussion on the doctrine of God and focusing the questions on the sui generis reality of the Scriptural text, rather than starting, as many have, with natural parallels. What would be the advantage to holding on to inspiration over divine spiration? Any thoughts?

Choosing Theology Textbooks: Master List

I began to notice that a lot of our ruminations around here revolved around the classroom – either looking for books to use now, or else thinking about books to use in the future. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to have a master list of posts on books that are user-friendly, especially for introductory courses, which can be hard to find. This list will also help us to round out areas we might not have talked much about. You can find the list on the tab at the top of the Theology Forum homepage. We’ll keep it updated, so hopefully it be a helpful resource.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

Roger Olson has an interesting post on the current situation in evangelicalism and the radical change, as he sees it, from what evangelicalism was in the 70’s. We’ve batted around the nature of evangelicalism and fundamentalism here quite a bit, and I was wondering your thoughts. Do you resonate with this? If you were around in the 70’s to see this shift, do you agree with his position?

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part II)

Having taken the award for most time betwixt two portions of a book review, I’ll round out the summary of  Westphal’s book Whose Community?  Which Interpretation? and conclude with some critical reflections.  With  chapter six Westphal commences his presentation of Gadamer’s view of interpretation, underscoring Gadamer’s  notion of tradition:

We belong to tradition by virtue of our thrownness into it, our immersion in it, and our formation by it.  This is an ontological claim about our being and an epistemological claim about our understanding of ourselves and our world (70).

Westphal notes three features of the role of tradition: 1) it enables the enterprise of human thought by giving us  a place from which we can explore and attempt to understand the world; 2) each of us is shaped by multiple  traditions; 3) tradition cultivates prejudice, or pre-judgment, rendering every interpretation of a text “relative to  the traditions that have formed the perspectives and presuppositions that guide it,” though this doesn’t entail  “anything goes” relativism as some interpretations remain more illuminating than others (71).  Westphal also  unfolds three theses that are corollaries of Gadamer’s take on tradition: 1) the alterity thesis (texts are voices  with an otherness from which we must be willing to learn); 2) the authority thesis (the traditions that shape us  deserve a measure of respect and deference); 3) the fallibility thesis (the traditions that shape us are subject to error and may be critiqued and revised over time).

The seventh chapter centers on the inescapability of the relativity of the reader.  Authors, say Gadamer and Westphal, cannot free readers from their relativity for two reasons: 1) authors are unable to deliver determinate textual meaning because they lack the wherewithal to discern fully what it is they’ve actually written; 2) authors can’t deliver determinate textual meaning because the power of tradition is ever unconsciously operative in the author’s labors, which reinforces the author’s limitations indicated under reason one.  Similarly, while method remains important, it too cannot rescue readers from their relativity for several reasons: 1) the emphasis on deploying a scientific method itself arises under the contingency of a particular tradition; 2) rigorous application of method can lead us to honor only our own conclusions and thus blind us to the findings of others; 3) total distanciation is impossible for us since we remain situated within our traditions.

In chapter eight, Westphal highlights Gadamer’s appeal to the humanist tradition.  Probably the most significant item here lies in the proposition that the being of a thing reaches its full flowering only when it is understood by human knowers.  The presentation of something “does not stand like a copy next to the real world, but is that world in the heightened truth of its being” (95).  Indeed, “[t]o be is to be shown, manifested, revealed” (96).  For texts in particular, this means that interpretation belongs to the very nature of the text.

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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?

Evangelicalism as a School

In the volume Life in the Spirit (see previous post), Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that evangelicalism be seen as a school of spirituality. I think this is interesting. I think this kind of delineation would explain why evangelicalism seems to be more interested in lifestyle and experience than in doctrine. What do we think about this? I think there is a lot of traction in seeing evangelicalism as a school of spirituality rather than a school of doctrine or a sociological movement building on the revivals or something like that. If this is right, it makes sense that we see a return to Spiritual classics, since those were the very texts used to start this school. When we read Scougal, Wesley, Edwards, etc., we are seeing reflection on Fenelon, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thomas a’ Kempis.

I wonder if this could help to explain why evangelicalism has always seemed to stand at ends with dogmatic theology and much of Reformed/Lutheran theology/ecclesiology? Is there a sense where this school bought into the idea that this spirituality, rather than being monastic was supposed to saturate life (be the city on the hill) and also attract outsiders?

I’m still thinking about this but would love to hear some thoughts. What are the downsides to this kind of categorization? Upsides?

The Teleology of the Christian Life

I read a paper in Glasgow at a conference last year which is now being turned into a book. My paper was on the beatific vision in Jonathan Edwards, and as I revisit the topic I’ve been thinking more and more about the tradition which uses the beatific as an organizing principle. I wanted to start a conversation here about this kind of teleology of the Christian life. What are its upsides? What are the pitfalls? Richard Bauckham notes that this tradition can lead to an individualized and intellectualized account of glory, and by implication, life under God in general, but notes that this isn’t necessary. What are the competing options, and do those offer a more holistic account of the Christian life?

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part I)

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.

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Milbank takes a drubbing in new SBET

The spring issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology is out. Kyle and I have reviews in it, but I guarantee neither of us said anything remotely as cheeky as Oliver O’Donovan in his review of John Milbank’s latest book, The Future of Love. Ouch!

Given how much Milbank’s thought revolves around the themes of beauty,  art, and the poetic work of thought, it is strange that he should constantly express himself in prose that is ill-formed, congested, and inexpressive, giving the appearance of being simply spilled onto the page. `One should exhibit and offer a ruin’, he tells us, justifying the incomplete character of his thought. As those who live in Scotland have reason to know, ruins may be beautiful; Milbank’s, most of the time, are not (p. 107).

Other reviews of note are D. Stephen Long’s devastating review of Jay Richards Money, Greed, and God, Kim Fabricius’ punchy review of Michael Pasquarello’s We Speak Because We Were First Spoken, and I. Howard Marshall’s review of a new introduction to the New Testament.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine

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.

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