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