Peter Leithart on using the Bible politically

The latest edition of Comment includes articles by an impressive line-up of thinkers, including Marilynne Robinson, Jean Vanier, Matthew Milliner, Calvin Seerveld, Esther Meek and others. It also includes a nice wee piece by guest editor Peter Leithart who has this to say about Scripture:

‘When used as a tool of political assessment and evaluation, Scripture is a yardstick to measure what’s already out there in the world, rather than a potent political force in its own right. Christians who mine the Bible for positive moral, political, or aesthetic principles frequently have an intellectualistic and moralistic view of human experience. Much of the abundant, often edifying, literature on Christian worldview reduces Scripture to a system of ideas or a set of moral rules that we consciously embrace and apply to the world around us.

But the Bible is not a compendium of doctrines, ideas, or rules. Scripture teaches, but teaches through stories, poetry, exhortation, visions, letters. It addresses the whole man—our minds, but also our passions, imaginations, loves, and desires. Christians who attempt to apply the Bible to political life, for example, often focus so completely on discovering ethical standards that they ignore the significance of Scripture’s rhetoric. Rhetoric italicizes what is said. When using the Bible politically, we not only ask, “What does God say is good and right?” We must also ask, “What does God italicize?”‘ – Peter Leithart, ‘The Word of God and the City of Man

John Webster on Holy Scripture

‘… Scripture is a transcendent moment in the life of the church. Scripture is not the church’s book, something internal to the community’s discursive practices; what the church hears in Scripture is not its own voice. It is not a store of common meanings or a Christian cultural code – and if it engenders those things, it is only because Scripture is that in which Jesus Christ through the Spirit is pleased to utter the viva vox Dei. Consecrated by God for the purpose of Christ’s self-manifestation, Holy Scripture is always intrusive, in a deep sense alien, to the life of the church. All this is to say that the church assembles around the revelatory self-presence of God in Christ through the Spirit, borne to the communion of saints by the writings of the prophets and apostles. This divine revelation is “isolated” – that is, it is a self-generating and self-completing event’. – John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 189.

On the ‘expository sermon’

On Monday, I posted from Dietrich Ritschl’s book A Theology of Proclamation, a volume that I recently had reason to return to again. One of the things that I love about this book is the way that Ritschl understands the Word as the dynamic God in the free act of gracious self-unveiling through human speech and deed. God’s Word, through Jesus’ presence in the Spirit, becomes entangled with our word which, by grace, is ‘of no less authority than [God’s] own Word’ (pp. 67-8). He cites 1 Thessalonians 2.13 ['We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers'] in support of this claim, and then proceeds to note the cruciality of the claim regarding Jesus’ presence in the Spirit:

‘This is not just a “theological formula”. If we left it out, we would have a Word of God that is separated from God; we would make God the prisoner of our thoughts or theologies. We would have a Word with which we could operate, a Word we could “use”, a Word we could judge. But it could not be the Word of God, the Word which operates with us, uses us, and judges us. Our work in the Church, therefore, can only be a service to this one life-giving Word of God. The clearest expression of this truth is the fact that there is no other way to preach than to preach an “expository sermon”, and even this is not a guarantee’.

On the perspicuity of Scripture

Once upon a time, when describing the ‘power of the Word of God’, Uncle Karl referred to the ‘magic of biblical thought and language … to which we must not on any account remain insensible, but which we can and must allow to have its due effect. As the essential pre-requisite for a biblical exegesis which does not remain confined to grammatical-historical matters, there is needed an intuition, an ability to detect the dæmonic magic of the Bible’ [CD I/2, 674]. Barth was concerned here, as elsewhere, with the freedom of the Word ‘in its illimitability or its equality over against other powers’, one feature of which concerns the reality that the early generations of Protestant reformers championed; namely, the perspicuity of Scripture. While writing some Bible studies on Amos recently, I have been encouraged to employ that great principle of hermeneutics. (Apparently, it’s a principle that works for other parts of the Bible too!). Anyway, that all brought to mind some quotes that I once gathered on the doctrine, quotes that I thought worth sharing here:

‘Scripture is self-interpreting and perspicuous by virtue of its relation to God … The clarity of Scripture is a function of its place in the divine self-demonstration, and of the Spirit’s work of ordering the mind, will and affections of the reader towards what Calvin called “heavenly doctrine”. Perspicuity only makes sense when seen in a soteriological context, that is, in relation to God’s act as Word and Spirit and the creature’s act of faith. Like other properties of Scripture, such as sufficiency, efficacy or perfection, clarity is not a formal or natural property of the text considered in isolation … Rather, Scripture is clear because through the Spirit the text serves God’s self-presentation. Properly speaking, it is not Scripture which is self-interpreting but God who as Word interprets himself through the Spirit’s work … Scripture is clear because of the Spirit’s work in which creaturely acts of reading are so ordered towards faithful attention to the divine Word that through Scripture the light of the gospel shines in its own inherent splendour. Perspicuity is thus not a way of suggesting that reading is superfluous; it is about the way in which faithful reading within the economy of revelatory grace is not sheerly spontaneous but a receptive act of the intelligence of faith … In sum: Scripture’s clarity is neither an intrinsic element of the text as text nor simply a fruit of exegetical labour; it is that which the text becomes as it functions in the Spirit-governed encounter between the self-presenting saviour and the faithful reader. To read is to be caught up by the truth-bestowing Spirit of God’. – John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 93–5.

‘The canon of the Reformation scholars was to take the clear passages and use them to test the obscure. That was to be the principle to guide the Church. Cranks and doctrinaires might fix on unique and obscure passages which fascinated their angular or mystic minds. They might puncture these texts and then colour the whole of the Bible with a dilution of the theosophy which oozed from them. To this day ill-taught and self-taught people frame amateur fantastic theologies in that way. And the poor churches are bewildered by the gropings of unfortunate men who were told at college only that they must make their own theology. Do you wonder that the result of such teachng is collapse for church or college? But the sound principle of old was otherwise. And it remains sound to-day. We should use the clear to interpret the obscure. But that is not exactly what they mean who say that the Bible must be read by way of a selection of certain parts. They would proceed by the way of dissection. They would act critically rather than hermeneutically. They would cut out certain pieces as being Bible, and discard certain others as intrusions on the Bible; and the discarded portions would not be interpreted by the rest, but rather neglected, and practically ejected from the canon’. – P.T. Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 75–6.

‘To put it briefly, there are two kinds of clarity in Scripture, just as there are also two kinds of obscurity: one external and pertaining to the ministry of the Word, the other located in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it. They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God, nor anything else, as Psalm 13[14:1] says: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god.’” For the Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture, both as a whole and in any part of it. If, on the other hand, you speak of the external clarity, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous, but everything there is in the Scriptures has been brought out by the Word into the most definite light, and published to all the world’. – Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 28.

‘It is a wondrous and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organised the Holy Scriptures so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages, and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones.’ … ‘If you cannot yet understand [a passage of Scripture], you should leave the matter for the consideration of those who can; and since Scripture does not abandon you in your infirmity, but with a mother’s love accompanies your slower steps, you will make progress. Holy Scripture, indeed, speaks in such a way as to mock the proud readers with its heights, terrify the attentive with its depths, feed great souls with its truth and nourish little ones with sweetness.’ – Augustine, in Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the “Plain Sense” of Genesis 1-3 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998), 164,167.

So back to Amos, and that with Jeremiah’s help, and Luke’s. Ah … the dæmonic magic of the Bible!

John Webster on T.F. Torrance on Scripture [updated]

In his recent lecture on ‘T.F. Torrance on Scripture’ (presented in Montreal, 6 November 2009, at the Annual Meeting of the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship), Professor John Webster argued that Torrance’s most sustained writing on Scripture lay not in extended cursive exegesis but rather in ‘epistemological and hermeneutical questions – in giving a theological account of the nature of the biblical writings and of the several divine and human acts which compose the economy of revelation’ (p. 1). Such an account requires the theologian to both develop an anatomy of modern reason, in order to expose a ‘damaging breach in the ontological bearing of our minds upon reality’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 10), and to make an attempt at ‘repairing the ontological relation of the mind to reality, so that a structural kinship arises between human knowing and what is known’ (ibid., 10). Webster contends that Torrance’s writings on these matters constitute ‘one of the most promising bodies of material on a Christian theology of the Bible and its interpretation from a Protestant divine of the last five or six decades – rivalled but not surpassed’, Webster suggests, ‘by Berkouwer’s magisterial study Holy Scripture’ (p. 1).

Webster devotes the bulk of his paper to three related areas of Torrance’s thought on Scripture: namely, that (i) Scripture must be ordered from a trinitarian theology of revelation; (ii) that the biblical writings are complex textual acts of reference to the Word of God; and (iii) that the Bible directs its readers to ‘a hermeneutics of repentance and faith’ (p. 4).

On this first point, Webster notes that ‘a theological account of the nature of Scripture and its interpretation takes its rise … not in observations of the immanent religious and literary processes, as if the texts could be understood as self-articulations on the part of believing communities, but in the doctrine of the self-revealing triune God. Torrance is unhesitatingly and unrelentingly a positive dogmatician at this point, in a couple of senses. First, and most generally, he takes revelation as a given condition for the exercise of theological intelligence, not as a matter about which intelligence is competent to entertain possibilities or deliver a judgment … Second, more specifically, Torrance’s positivity concerns the way in which knowledge of God, including knowledge of God through Holy Scripture – arises from the specific modes in which God deals with rational creatures’ (pp. 4–5). In support of this claim, Webster cites from (among other sources) Torrance’s Divine Meaning:

‘The source of all our knowledge of God is his revelation of himself. We do not know God against his will, or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he as elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth in the historical theological context of the worshipping people of God, the Church of the Old and New Covenants. That is the immediate empirical fact with which the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments are bound up’ (Divine Meaning, 5).

Such a move, Webster recalls, enables Torrance to develop an account of revelation in which the relation of divine communication to the biblical texts is not fundamentally problematic, but rather is one in which ‘creaturely media can fittingly perform a service in relation to the intelligible speech of God’ (p. 6). He continues:

‘It was this, perhaps more than any other factor, which led to his estrangement from mainstream British theological culture, preoccupied as it was both in biblical and doctrinal work with the supposedly self -ontained realities of Christian texts, beliefs and morals, struggling to move beyond historical immanence, and weakened by a largely inoperative theology of the incarnation. Torrance was able to overcome the inhibitions of his contemporaries by letting a theology of the divine economy instruct him in the way in which God acts in the temporal and intelligible domain of the creature’. (p. 6)

Webster proceeds to note that the ultimate ground of Torrance’s claim that only God speaks of God is the Word’s assumption of flesh, an event which ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7). He concludes the section by underscoring Torrance’s refusal to be ‘trapped either by the kind of revelatory supernaturalism in which the Bible is unproblematically identical with the divine Word, and so effectively replaces the hypostatic union, or the kind of naturalism in which the Bible mediates nothing because it has been secularised as without residue a product or bearer of immanent religious culture’ (p. 8).

In the next section, Webster recalls how for Torrance the relation between the divine Word and the human words of Scripture is a positive one: ‘there is no crisis about the possibility of human text acts serving in God’s personal activity of self-presentation to intelligent creatures’ (p. 9). At this point the doctrine of Scripture exhibits similar formal features as does that of the hypostatic union. And Webster goes on to identify three ways in which Torrance amplifies this basic proposal: (1) Scripture as an accommodated divine Word (a theme that betrays Torrance’s indebtment to Calvin); (2) Scripture as sacrament; (3) Scripture’s expressive or referential relation to the divine Word. On the first, divine accommodation, Webster writes:

‘A theology of accommodation is a way of overcoming the potential agnosticism or scepticism which can lurk within strong teaching about the ineffable majesty of God. Doctrines of divine transcendence can paralyse theological speech, severing the connection between theologia in se and theologia nostra, and cause theology either to retreat into silence or to resign itself to the referential incapacity of secular human words. If, however, we think of divine revelation actively accommodating itself to creaturely forms, we make use of language about divine action, but without the assumption that divine action can only be efficacious an trustworthy if it is direct and immediate, uncontaminated by any created element. We retain, that is, a measure of trust that divine communicative activity is uninhibited by creaturely media, which it can take into its service and shape into fitting (though never wholly adequate) instruments. In terms of the doctrine of Holy Scripture, this means that, although we do not receive the Word of God directly but only ‘in the limitation and imperfection, the ambiguities and contradictions of our fallen ways of thought and speech’ (Divine Meaning, 8), nevertheless we do have the divine Word. Creaturely limitation, imperfection, ambiguity and contradiction do not constitute an unsurpassable barrier to the Word as it makes itself present to created intelligence … Divine appropriation, moreover, brings with it the transformation of creaturely speech, its transposition into a new field of operation and its being accorded a new set of semantic functions’ (pp. 11, 13).

In the next section, Webster turns to the question of biblical interpretation, where he allows the agenda to be set by Torrance’s own questions; namely, What is biblical interpretation’s most characteristic posture before the divine Word? What is the general tenor of its activity? From whence does it come, and to what end does it move? How does it come to learn to dispose itself fittingly in the domain of the divine Word? Webster recalls that for Torrance, the governing rule for the interpretation of Scripture is that the Scriptures ‘are to be interpreted in terms of the intrinsic intelligibility given them by divine revelation, and within the field of God’s objective self-communication in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, 43). He later cites from Torrance’s brilliant Reality & Evangelical Theology, noting that for Torrance theological interpretation is, therefore, a matter of ‘subjecting the language used to the realities it signifies and attend[ing] to the bearing of its coherent patterns upon the self-revelation of God which it manifestly intends’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 117). Webster concludes that ‘because of this, hermeneutics is not a poetic activity. The interpreter is not a co-creator of meaning by the work which he or she undertakes with the text. And so, in biblical hermeneutics the interpreter’s task is more than anything to receive with the right kind of pliability the gift of meaning which the divine Word extends through the text’s service. It is this all-important alertness to the text’s relation to the reality which it signifies which constitutes the scientific character of biblical hermeneutics … If the all-important property of the Bible is the semantic relation between divine Word and created text, the all-important hermeneutical activity is that of probing behind or beneath literary phenomena in order to have dealings with that which the phenomena indicate. The “depth – surface” language, that is, goes hand in hand with what has already been said of Scripture as sign or sacrament: the movement of which the Bible is part does not terminate in itself, and the interpreter must not be arrested by the merely phenomenal, but instead press through the text to the Word of which it is the ambassador’ (p. 16, 17).

A gravely important point. Webster does not, unfortunately, unpack the claim about poetic activity, nor does he proceed to relate this directly to preaching, and to what sense (if any) preaching – and, indeed, the Church’s entire liturgical witness – entails poetic action, that divine speech in Scripture calls not only for ‘crucifixion and repentance’ (Divine Meaning, 8) but also for a rigorous affirmation of the imagination, not as, to be sure, a ‘co-creator of meaning’ or where readers and hearers might be said to ‘make’ meaning, but as part of the Word’s faithful and sanctifying unveiling. Is imagination somehow not included in the claim, made earlier, that the Word’s assumption of flesh ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7)? I think here of Brueggemann’s Finally Comes The Poet, of Nicholas Lash’s Holiness, Speech and Silence (see, for example, pp. 3–4), and, indeed, of Torrance’s own The Mediation of Christ. Unless I have misunderstood Webster here, surely this is a matter of both/and. So Trevor Hart:

‘We must insist, to be sure, that God’s self-revealing initiative (in Scripture, in his own self-imaging in his Son, and in his personal indwelling of the church in his Spirit) be taken absolutely seriously and accounted for adequately in Christian discipleship and theological construction. Yet we must also acknowledge the vital roles played by imagination in laying hold of the reality of this same God and in enabling our response to God’s engagement with us. For faith, as evangelicals above all know very well, is a relationship with God that transforms and transfigures. It is a relationship in which the Father’s approach in Word and Spirit calls forth from us ever and again imaginative responses as we seek to interpret, to “make sense” of, and to correspond appropriately with what we hear God saying to us. It is not a matter of having a divine image impressed on us like tablets of wax but of having our imagination taken captive and being drawn into a divine drama, playing out the role that the Father grants us in the power of the Spirit, whom he pours out on the entire group of players’. – Trevor A. Hart, ‘Imagining Evangelical Theology’, in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (ed. J. G. Stackhouse, Jr.; Grand Rapids/Leicester/Vancouver: Baker Books/Inter-Varsity Press/Regent College Publishing, 2000), 197–8.

Professor Hart, who has, I think, engaged with these questions more deeply and more satisfactorily than most in recent centuries, has argued elsewhere that imagination remains a key category for any discourse about themes eschatological, that in order to make sense of the kind of hopeful living towards God’s future that Scripture bears witness to demands that we take the imagination seriously. ‘One of the key functions of imagination is the presentation of the otherwise absent. In other words, we have the capacity through imagination to call to mind objects, persons or states of affairs which are other than those which appear to confront us in what, for want of a better designation, we might call our “present actuality” (i.e. that which we are currently experiencing). I do not say “reality” precisely because the real itself may well prove to be other than what appears to be actual’. He continues: ‘Another key role of imagination in human life is as the source of the capacity to interpret, to locate things within wider patterns or networks of relationships which are not given, but which we appeal to tacitly in making sense of things. We see things as particular sorts of things, and this is, in substantial part, an imaginative activity. And, since more than one way of seeing or taking things is often possible, what appears to be the case may actually change with an imaginative shift of perspective, rendering a quite distinct picture of the real’. – Trevor Hart, ‘Imagination for the Kingdom of God? Hope, Promise, and the Transformative Power of an Imagined Future’ in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (ed. Richard Bauckham; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 54. In other words, the present, Hart insists, does not contain its full meaning within itself, but only in its relation to what is yet to come.

It is precisely imagination, the capacity which is able to take the known and to modify it in striking and unexpected ways, which offers us the opportunity to think beyond the limits of the given, to explore states of affairs which, while they are radical and surprising modifications of the known, are so striking and surprising as to transcend the latent possibilities and potentialities of the known. If, therefore, the promise of God is the source of hope, it may be that we must pursue the suggestion that it is the imagination of men and women to which that promise appeals, which it seizes and expands, and which is the primary locus of God’s sanctifying activity in human life. (Hart, ‘Imagination’, 76)

Returning back to Torrance (and to Webster), it seems to me that the graced value of the imagination is not necessarily excluded from Torrance’s own rigorous scientific method, though, as Tony Clark has argued in a 2006 paper given at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Torrance does have a tendency to see the scientific nature of theology as an exclusive paradigm for theological knowledge and in this the Scottish Presbyterian ‘discounts or marginalises other approaches to theology which ought properly to complement the “scientific model”’. [BTW: I heartily commend the published version of Clark’s PhD thesis, Divine Revelation and Human Practice: Responsive and Imaginative Participation]. If Webster’s point that hermeneutics is not a poetic activity is simply to underscore the basic unilateral givenness of the text then I can have no problem with his statement, but if by this claim he means to suggest that ‘the scientific character of biblical hermeneutic’ takes place apart from human imagination, then I would want to suggest otherwise.

To be sure, Webster touches on something of this in the final section of his lecture wherein he alludes to ‘a theology of the Word’s majestic freedom and condescension in appropriating and adapting created speech to revelation’ (p. 24), but he leaves this point undeveloped, electing instead to focus on Torrance’s trumpeting of ‘a genealogy of exegetical and interpretative reason … not only to give a pathology of hermeneutical defect but also to retrieve a set of useable dogmatic, metaphysical and spiritual principles by which to direct the interpretative exercise’ (p. 25).

My relatively-small reservation aside, Professor Webster’s paper is a superb introduction to Torrance on Scripture, and betrays his own longlasting engagement with questions of Scripture and hermeneutics, most obviously in Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch but also in other places. It certainly rekindled my appetite for Webster’s own forthcoming commentary on Ephesians (as part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series). Many thanks to the TF Torrance Theological Fellowship for making Professor Webster’s paper widely available.

Around the traps: Jacques Ellul … et al

  • Ellul
  • Gabriel Fackre posts on Time in Eternity: the Lively Life to Come.
  • A timely challenge by Andrew Hamilton by way of a reconsideration of Bonhoeffer’s ethics.
  • Byron Smith offers some thoughts on Rowan Williams ‘two styles of Anglicanism.
  • And Halden shares two great quotes from Jacques Ellul’s Hope in Time of Abandonment: on prayer and on hope and apocalyptic.
  • And while we’re on that book, I’ll post here some further gems:
    • ‘We were saying that God is no longer anything to some … it would be better to say that on behalf of the practicing unbeliever, the systematic atheist, the doctrinal or practicing materialist, the antitheist, God makes himself nothing in order always to remain at man’s level. But when God makes himself nothing, it is still for the sake of the unbelieving man. He remains sovereign in so doing. In that case we have to be on our guard, for God is both the weak adversary who accepts the combat without putting up a fight and also the one who is capable at any time of revealing Himself as possessed of infinite power’. (p. 104)
    • ‘When man is not made hopeless by God’s silence, it is because he (man) has destroyed his awareness, to the point of wanting nothing better than to be identical instead of identifiable’. (p. 116)
    • ‘God, who has let himself be put to death in Christ, withdraws into His discreetness before the absence of love, the absence of filial relations, the absence of trust, the absence of gift, the absence of loyalty, the absence of truth, the absence of self-discipline, the absence of freedom, the absence of authenticity. God makes Himself absent in this world of absences, which modern man has put together with enthusiasm. Man certainly has not killed God, but in creating this world of absence for himself he has brought about the discreetness of God, which is expressed in God’s turning away and silence’. (p. 124)
    • ‘The passion for language and analysis and hermeneutics is the unintentional expression of God’s silence. It is reasons like this: God is absent, (we are not saying so, of course), so we are going to get along without Him. This demonstrates that it is not all essential that God speaks here and now in order that the witness be heard and received’. (p. 141)
    • ‘The tragedy of interpretation [of Scripture] is a tragedy, not because scientific interpretations enter into overturning the traditional Christian interpretations, nor because the procedures are highly sophisticated, but because God is silent. The Promethean role of Hermeneutics is that of claiming to find a meaning as though God were speaking. Strictly, it is a matter of putting oneself in the place of God’s decision. It is a matter of making Scripture alive and meaningful without God’s making it alive and meaningful. It is a matter of effecting the transition from Scripture to word, or of making language into the word, by putting together highly sophisticated humans means to economize on the use (or role) of the Holy Spirit. Hermeneutics is the business of interpreting revelation without revelation’. (p. 145)
    • ‘I fail to see the justification for accepting as legitimate all the questions about the revelation, more or less, validly raised from different points of view, while at the same time refusing to question those systems, methods, and conclusions from the point of view of revelation’. (p. 145)
    • And my favourite: ‘Man is living in an illusionary world, illusionary because it is made up of images transmitted by communications media. His world is no longer that of his daily experience, of his lived mediocrity of his personality or of his repeated relationships. It has become an enormous decor, put there by the thousands of news items which are almost completely useless for his life, but which are striking, arousing, threatening, glorifying and edifying in their radical insignificance. They give him the feeling of living an experience, which is worth the trouble, in contrast to the rest of his experience, which is colorless and too plainly unimportant. It is an odd perversion which leads the person of this age to bestow importance and sense on that which does not concern him at all … while rejecting the importance and sense of that which is in fact his own experience 24 hours of every day’. (p. 35)

On the dynamic of Holy Scripture

path‘In order to have vision we must have memory. Indeed forgetfulness or amnesia is precisely what strips us of vision – without the past there can be no future. So our contemporary improvisation must be informed and directed by both a profound indwelling of the biblical vision of life and a discerning attentiveness to the postbiblical scenes that have already been acted out in the history of the church.

There is a certain dynamic in this approach to biblical authority that could be described as a dance between innovation and consistency. Our serious reading of Scripture must be characterized by fidelity to the thrust of the narrative and thus provide our life with a consistency and stability, a rootedness. At the same time, however, the Bible as an unfinished drama gives us freedom for historical innovation and thus a creative and imaginative flexibility in our historical responses. It is only by maintaining the essential relationship between stability and flexibility that we “may avoid the hazards” of both a rigid fossilization of our faith and “a deeper relativizing which gives up everything for a moment of [contemporary] relevance” [Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982, 7].

As we read through the biblical story, it is clear that the Israelites themselves retold their stories with such fidelity and innovation. As the ancient Israelites encountered new situations, they remembered and interpreted their traditions in such a way that they engaged contemporary problems and concerns. Indeed without such dynamic interpretation, the texts and traditions contained within them were seen to be incomplete. There is therefore a dynamic of “inner-biblical exegesis” wherein various biblical traditions are creatively reworked in Israel’s Scriptures. As the biblical story unfolds, the received traditions were “adapted, transformed, or reinterpreted” …

Stability and flexibility, fidelity and creativity, consistency and innovation – these are key if a narrative text is to have any current authority in our lives’.  – Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2004) , 134-5)

[Image taken stolen from deepchurch]

Robert Jenson: The 2009 Burns Lectures on Video

robertjenson-008I recently posted notes on Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burn Lectures delivered at the University of Otago on the theme, ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’:

The video podcasts of those lectures are now available for download as MP4s:

Robert Jenson: The 2009 Burns Lectures on ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’

robertjenson-8Here’s a list of recently posted notes on Robert Jenson‘s 2009 Burn Lectures delivered at the University of Otago:

The video podcasts of those lectures are now available for download as MP4s. See here for details.

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 6 – Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26–38

jenson-2For his grand finale Robert Jenson offered a practical demonstration of what had been argued for in the first five lectures, namely, a creedal critical exegesis of Scripture. Due to time limitations Jenson took as his text Genesis 1:1-3 only. The joy of hearing him on this text was that it touched on many of the key themes of Jenson’s thought and gave us a kind of overview of his doctrine of creation and time.

His starting point was the observation that, although the two well-known translations of Genesis 1:1 are both grammatically possible, the shift in the NRSV to the temporal subordinate clause (‘when God created the heavens and the earth’) is a move from the most straightforward and default translation to something that more closely reflects the religiosity of ancient paganism. (There is no reason, Jenson contends, to abandon the LXX and KJV here) It is a departure from radical Judaism to a view of the universe in which chaos is antecedent to and coeval with God’s creating. Jenson noted that if in the beginning there is both God and chaos then both God and chaos are involved – at least at one level – in our creation. Creedal criticism, where the creed provides the lens for our suspicion of appearances, makes us immediately alert to this reading which assimilates YHWH to the anthropomorphic gods of religion. Even if it is only chaos it is a foothold outside God – a point of independence – something other than the absolute beginning of the Christian faith. It challenges our faith in the world’s ‘self-founded timeless being’. It is, says Jenson, Scripture’s scandalous ‘metaphysical put-down’ that we try and avoid. Interestingly, Jenson notes this same impulse in the cosmologist’s attempt to avoid creatio ex nihilo by means of positing multiple universes – a totally untestable and therefore unscientific hypothesis, which has nothing other than the conviction of ‘no absolute beginning’ as its basis.

With an eye on the creed Jenson continues: ‘Who is this God who tolerates no antecedents of his work?’ Creedal criticism assumes it to be obvious that it is the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ. It thus justifies the gloss ‘In the beginning the Father of Jesus created the heavens and the earth’. Thus we may conclude that ‘the contingency of the world is founded on the contingency of the life of Jesus’.

Jenson cites Westermann to claim that Genesis 1:1 is a caption summary for the whole story that follows. This then leads on to 1:2, which is where the creation narrative properly begins. Jenson claims that the best scholarship locates this verse in the post-exilic editing of a priestly savant in the second temple and then poses the question of whether this scholar was (a) thinking paganly or (b) using pagan language of Near Eastern mythology to serve the purposes of 1:1. Under the guidance of the creed, Jenson choses to read it the second way. His account of 1:2 is something like this. Given the unavoidable sequentiality of the narration of events, the writer wields the language of subsistent nothingness as a place-marker to indicate an absence. There can be no question about before. In Jenson’s phraseology, ‘To ask what was God doing before he created the world is a dumb question.

Again in verse 3 Jenson’s creedally-suspicious mind spots ideology at work in the NRSV’s translation of ‘a wind from God’ where in every other instance of the phrase ruach elohim is translated ‘Spirit of/from God’. What’s more, because Genesis 1:3 is a late text the tradent knew this title. Jenson’s creedal reading thus concludes ‘The Holy Spirit agitated the empty possibility posited when God begins to create and there is nothing’. What’s more, this suggests that there is an ‘inner liveliness in God’ which is directed towards making something when there is nothing.

At this point Jenson offered asides on the Nicene concept of the Holy Spirit as ‘enlivener’ and the folly of continuing to insist on the filoque which was after all an illegal addition.

From here the story of creation begins: (a) God said let there be light; (b) God saw that the light was good; (c) God separated the light from the darkness. The world simply is an affirmative response to God’s command: ‘That’s all there is to it’! And this explosion of energy (light) is good (for something). Here Jenson explores all the non-creedal and non-trinitarian puzzlements surrounding this text. A monotheistic/Unitarian/Aristotelian God cannot speak. For such a god eternity is necessarily silent.  At best, if a god like Aristotle’s did speak it would be an act of condescension. Moreover, for such a god to speak presupposes a polytheistic pantheon. However the creedal critic knows that not only can the Triune God speak, but God can be conceived as a conversation. ‘God is a conversation’. Only the Triune God who is a conversation can issue a command to creation before creation existed because the second person of the Trinity is himself a creature – Jesus of Nazareth. At this point Jenson talked of a conversation in which the Son, as the creature Jesus Christ, hears and speaks. ‘In what language does God speak?’, Jenson provocatively asks. In the language of Spirit – that universally self-translating language heard by the prophets, and which at Pentecost all the nations heard as their own.

And God saw that the light was good. Was it good because he saw it so, or did he discover it to be good? Jenson responds that there is ‘no humanly ascertainable difference’. However the key question Jenson moves quickly on to is, ‘Good for what?’ And here he refers us to the second and third articles of the creed – that is, that creation is the good stage for the drama of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this 78-year old ‘unreliable’ Lutheran affirms with Barth that creation is the ‘outer basis’ or ground for the covenant and its events, and that covenant is the inner ground of creation.

What about darkness? Does God create a non-good. Jenson accepts Augustine’s reading of darkness as absence, where light runs out. Evil is the ‘running out’ of being in its finitude. Thus like the dimming of light an apparent necessity (or at least an actuality) of created finitude. The creation of life includes within it ‘death on an enormous scale.’

The story moves from the creation of life (‘energy’ in (post-)modern parlance) to its endless differentiation. Jenson comments: ‘Never rest too much on agreement between science and theology’ precisely because science is constantly changing and it is inherent in its claim to be science that it is open to such change. So Jenson argues, our priestly savant used the best science of his day to tell of God’s creation of the world – ‘what other science was there?’ We ought to emulate his courage?

Question time followed. The first question in the gladiatorial fray went to the heart of Jenson’s theology asking whether the creatureliness of the Son (no logos asarkos) implied the eternity of creation (pantheism?). Jenson, clearly familiar with the need to defend this ‘novelty’ in his thought, was surprisingly brief in his response. It was two-fold: (a) his Ockham’s razor saw no need for a pre-incarnate logos (begging some prima facie questions posed by John’s prologue, of the Word’s becoming) and (b) a pre-incarnate logos becoming flesh presupposes a common timeline in divine and human history. This doesn’t correspond to Jenson’s view of the relation between time and eternity, and is a nonsense. However, he didn’t feel the need to defend this claim here. No doubt time did not permit.

Further questions focused on theodicy. In different ways, Jenson’s succinct conclusion was that ‘we can’t get God off the hook for evil. We can’t do it, but we have confidence that God can do it!’ Jenson mentioned in passing the open theist theodicy which diminishes the notion of omnipotence so that God is not morally responsible for all that happens. Jenson is not personally happy with this, but was not completely dismissive either.

The lecture was a powerful presentation of Christian reading/exegesis which depends on the premises of his previous lectures (see I, IIIIIIV and V). One might reasonably be not entirely convinced by Jenson’s radically post-modern/pre-modern scepticism with respect to objective meaning in texts (see Lecture 5) and therefore have some doubts about the pathway Jenson takes to a theological interpretation. Are authorial intentions really as private as Jenson suggests (and Vanhoozer, for example, denies)? A comment Jenson made to post-graduates at a seminar on Wednesday morning about the infinite malleability of texts makes one wonder about the distinction between reading a text and projecting onto the text – if this distinction is lost the proposal of a creedal exegesis seems to have a certain kind of arbitrariness. However, even if Jenson is wrong about hermeneutics, it does not follow that his theological reflections on the text of Genesis 1 are wrong, just that its relation to something one might call ‘the meaning of Genesis 1′ is different from how he conceives it.

One might also think that Jenson’s suggestion that the contingent creaturely life of Jesus is part of the eternal life and conversation which is the Triune God requires considerably more unpacking than Jenson is want to do. Might Jenson’s formulation suggest that this creature who is also creator might be in fact self-creating? Might Ockham be cutting himself shaving?

A final thought: however one arrives, one never leaves a Jenson lecture unchanged. Whether he is lecturing on theology proper, on eschatology, on the Trinity, on culture, on anthropology, on ecumenism or on the relationship between Holy Scripture and the Church’s Creeds, Jenson is undoubtedly one of the most original and erudite theologians of our time. Certainly, as one commentator noted, ‘Jenson’s mind makes stimulating company’. One comes away from this series of Burns Lectures with a renewed love for Scripture, with a new appreciation of the abiding witness and value of the Church’s Creeds, and with a lively sense of doxological fervour for the Triune God. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all theology exists to be about?

 

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 3 – The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

robert jensonProfessor Jenson’s third Burns Lecture was concerned with the emergence of the NT as canon.

Initially he looked at the emergence of the NT canon as documented in the writings of Irenaeus. He noted that Irenaeus‘ arguments are circular, however, this is not a vicious circularity, indeed ‘circularity is the very mark of the Holy Spirit’.

In the search for authoritative apostolic teaching, Paul’s writings were accepted in spite of the appearance of gnosticism. Paul’s letters are scripture but only in the broader context of the story to which they contribute. The acceptance of the gospels arose due to the ‘logical relation’ between the gospel and the earliest expressions of the regula fidei. ‘Jesus is risen’ – ‘the ‘shortest statement of the gospel’ – calls out for narrative specification of Jesus’ identity. The gospel offered precisely that thickness of description and ‘morally and religiously specific news’ that the Church’s continuing identity required. On the other hand the theology of Paul and the other writers gave specificity to the meaning of ‘is risen’. So ‘Jesus’ is a reference to a real person; ‘is risen’ is a statement of ‘utmost salvific import’, especially in Second Temple Judaism.

The overall argument of the lecture was for the mutual interdependence of gospels and letters, alongside the mutual interdependence of creed and canon. Just as the crisis of identity threatening the Church’s fading regula fidei called for both the narrative of the gospels and the theology of the letters, so the emerging creedal formulations arising out of the regula fidei required the canon.

In something of a introductory survey of the Second-Century Church, Jenson reminded us that it was Clement of Alexandria who was the first to refer to the ‘Old Testament’ and to the ‘New Testament’. He also argued that the NT canon probably would have been formed even without Marcion, but that it may have been a different canon. Still, ‘we cannot say’.

Jenson proceeded to argue that creed and canon ‘fit together’ like two halves of a puzzle: the NT is indispensable to the creedal tradition and the canon is indispensable to the NT. Although he didn’t specify which creeds have authority for the Church (e.g. what ought we make of the Reformation creeds?), he did define the criterion by which that may be determined. He reserved the title ‘creed’ for those statements which derived ‘organically out of the regula fidei‘. Thus this notion of the communal self-consciousness of the first witnesses (he praised Bauckham’s recent study here, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) becomes more and more central to his emerging argument. Canon and creed together as the source of the identity of the Church over time take over where ‘regula fidei’ leaves off.

He made a brief comment on inspiration, stressing that the work of the Spirit – undergirding that circular reasoning we talked of earlier – was a work from within (not from outside) both the writers and the interpreters of the canon. The inspiration of the Spirit, on Jenson’s view, is not a gift separable from the presence of the Spirit. Like other gifts, it is a gift in the self-giving of the Spirit and not apart from that.

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

Next Lectures:

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 2 – The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

robert-jenson-3-1The Burns Lectures are definitely warming up. In this lecture Robert Jenson dealt with the Tanakh, or Old Testament (as is his preferred terminology with appropriate qualification: ‘old’ equals ‘prior’ rather than ‘antiquated’) as Christian scripture. He began by clarifying the appropriate questions – the status of the OT as Christian scripture was never questioned and for Jenson this can’t be the Church’s question since it is both absolutely prior (presumably in the sense that it constitutes the world in which the Christian faith is born) and necessary for the Church’s self-understanding. Jenson says that the really interesting question for the first Christians was a kind of obverse to that which questions the status of Israel’s scriptures, namely whether Israel’s scriptures could accept the proclamation of the resurrection. The Church, he insisted, did not accept Israel’s scriptures. Rather, Israel’s scriptures received the Church. Jenson noted that for the century, it was Israel’s scriptures which served the Gospel rather than the obverse. This question is alive even though it cannot be clearly asked since God has already answered it in raising Jesus.

Jenson proceeded to highlight how this question is constantly in the background of NT writing and how the NT demonstrates in the way it tells its story a ‘narrative harmony’ with Israel’s scriptures – relationship between passion narrative and Isaiah 53 being a case in point. The OT prophets were the one’s who provided the answer to ‘why’ did Jesus needed to die. Jenson argued that we cannot ask why the OT Scripture after Christ. Rather, we can only ask how scripture is the way for the Christian community. He also observed that the Church reads the OT as narrative because her gospel is itself a narrative, and because her gospel recognizes itself as the climax of the story told in the OT. Jenson cautioned about ‘unguarded talk of the unique fullness of God’s revelation in Christ’ [is that the mythological Christomonism?]. Such talk requires, says Jenson, the important qualification that the God present to the OT sages is the same Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught the scriptures with ‘authority’ says Jenson, ‘that is, as if he were the author … because, in a sense, he is’. Jenson continued this line with comments like ‘Christ prayed the psalms as the leader of Israel’s worship gathered as the body of Christ’. When ancient Israel gathered in the temple with their hymns and lamentations they were gathered as ‘the body of Christ’. At this point he introduced some of the difficult issues that were to arise later in his lecture also. In response to those who wonder whether Christians can pray the Psalms that call for the destruction of their enemies and the bashing of babies against rocks, he suggested, with some rhetorical flourish, that they could pray them at the foot of the cross against the devil and his angels. [We shall return to this claim]

The key question which the latter part of Jenson’s lecture focuses on is not whether the OT is Christian scripture but precisely how it so functions. Jenson’s answer is that it functions as ‘narrative of God’s history with his people’, including the Church. This arises because the Church’s gospel is narrative and it identifies itself as the climax of the narrative of Israel’s history. Why this should be so stems from the character of the ‘regula fidei’ as a ‘plotted sequence of God’s acts’ (economy) on the one hand and the nature of the book the Church wrote as a second testament. He interestingly contrasts the two movements to emerge from old Israel with the destruction of the temple – rabbinic Judaism ended up using the Tanakh differently from the Church because their second testament (Mishnah) had a legal character which meant that they read their Torah with law as a guiding concept. On the other hand the Church with its narrative gospel ended up contextualising law within the narrative of God with his people. This also had a lot to do with Paul’s very complex problematisation of the law.

The ‘how’ question in relation to the role of the OT was forged in contrast to various challenges to the initial role of the OT – Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Platonism. Although there was a certain ‘Church History 101′ feel to the lecture here, Jenson’s characterization of the movements and issues was always interesting. In response to all these developments, but particularly to that ‘monomaniacal Paulinist’ Marcion, Jenson says that Christians have no way of avoiding the fact that the God of Israel is a ‘man of war’ who goes into battle, sometimes for, sometimes against, his people, but a God who takes sides in history. This, says Jenson, is the only alternative to a god who abandons history. God is either involved in fallen history as the God of Israel is, or God is not. If God is to engage a violent history God cannot do so without being a ‘God of war’, that is, without getting God’s hands dirty. And it seems, for Jenson, to be involved is to be implicated as an agent of violence. Like Hans Boersma has also recently argued, Jenson seems to hold that God uses violence as a means justified by God’s ends – that God participates in the world’s violence but he does so by entering into that violence and dying in it, through which violence is undone.

When questioned as to whether there was a third alternative, namely to suffer violence as the crucified one, Jenson responded effectively that in relation to this issue it was not really a third alternative since the crucifixion was an event in which God was both the crucifier and the crucified – and therefore, presumably, not non-violent. He also presumed that the question was motivated by the issue of theodicy.

Three critical questions arise at this point:

  1. The first picks up on the difference the revelation of God in Christ makes. Why did Jenson limit the praying of that psalm to prayers against “the devil and his angels”? If he is to be consistently true to the ‘man of war’ motif, why do not Christians pray against their human enemies and their enemy’s babies? And if they do so, how is this consistent with love for one’s enemies?
  2. Is it necessary that if the Father sent the Son to the cross and the Son went to the cross in obedience to the Father that the God of Israel must be seen as both the crucified and the crucifier? Surely the willingness to be crucified and the willingness to let the Son be crucified (not my will but yours) do not entail the agency of crucifixion. Surely the fact that this evil event is ultimately good (Friday) lies in the good consequent upon it (for the joy that was set before him). There is no paradoxical necessity to make God (in whom there is no darkness) the agent of death. Surely the triune God is here its defeater.
  3. Finally, does the fact that the Old Testament is the Church’s scripture rule out the possibility that it, like the New Testament, is a ‘text in travail’ bearing witness to Israel education by God. Is it not possible to discern in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ a journey within Israel to unlearn pagan violence – we think here of a trajectory which includes the Cain/Abel story, the Akideh, the repentance of God post flood, the Joseph story, story of Job, the servant songs and so much more. So rather than accepting a strand which is taken for granted in the scriptures – God as man of war – why not discern how that strand is being deconstructed in the course of Israel’s journey with God? If such a reading is persuasive then the motivation to question the ‘man of war’ motif need not be motivated by theodicy, or not in any simplistic way.

 

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

Following Lectures:

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 1 – Creeds, Scripture, Niebuhr and the Preposition between Christ and Culture

robert-jensonThis afternoon, I was priviledged to hear a lecture by Robert W. Jenson who is visiting the University of Otago to deliver this year’s Burns Lectures on the theme of ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’. I’ve heard Professor Jenson lecture on a number of occassions, and on three different continents, and he is always enormously stimulating. In his opening lecture today entitled ‘Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation’, Jenson argued that the relationship between Holy Scripture and the ecumenical Creeds determines the whole life of the Church because together they witness to the Church being the same community yesterday, today and forever. He defined the Church as ‘the community of a message of the God of Israel who raised Christ from the dead’. Those already familiar with Jenson’s work would have heard here themes discussed and argued elsewhere in his writings.

Jenson proceeded to note that whereas the Christian community in the first century lived in the orbit of, and was defined in the light of, as it were, a first-hand history of Jesus and with little regard for its future, the second-century Church had to think through the community’s ‘future history’ and the shape which it would take as the institution of the future. It is to this end that both Scripture and the Regula Fidei bear witness to the one history of God with his people. Creeds are, he insisted, ‘a sort of communal linguistic awareness’  - a ‘gift of the Spirit’ who guides the church in every generation. On the relationship between the Regula Fidei and Church tradition more generally Jenson had little to say, at least in this lecture. [One hopes that this might get some teasing out in subsequent lectures].

Where more breath was expired, however, was over the question of Modernity and the demise of Regula Fidei. Modernity, Jenson repeated, sponsored a shift whereby Scripture and Creed came to be seen as alien to one another rather than as co-witnesses to the one Word of God and of the abiding presence of God with his people. Describing himself as an ‘unreliable Lutheran’, Jenson argued that the modern biblical studies movement began as a movement to redeem itself from creeds.

One fundamental conviction that drove Jenson’s entire presentation was his confidence that ‘Christ does not fit into other narratives. Other narratives have to fit into Christ’. I wish Jenson had unpacked this further (again, perhaps he will in the remaining lectures), but I did find one place where he does do such unpacking:

I have long thought that Niebuhr’s book, for all its individual insights, was based on a false setting of the question. Whatever preposition you put between Christ and culture, its mere presence there marks and enforces the supposition that Christ and culture are entities different in kind. But it is of course only the risen Christ who can now have a relation to a culture, and this living Christ’s body is the church. And the church – with its scriptures, odd rituals and peculiar forms of government – is plainly itself a culture.

Therefore the real question is always about the relation of the church culture to some other culture with which the church’s mission involves it at a time and place. And I do not think the relation can be the same in every case. During the time of “Christendom,” the culture of the church and the culture of the West were barely distinguishable. I do not think this “Constantinian settlement” was avoidable. When the empire said, “Come over and help us hold civilization together,” should the bishops have just refused?

As to Christendom’s consequences for faith, some were beneficial and some were malign, as is usual with great historical configurations. During the present collapse of Christendom and its replacement by an antinomian and would-be pagan culture, confrontation must of course be more the style.

Next lectures:

Robert Jenson @ Otago: ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’

robert-jenson-2During March, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Otago will be hosting Professor Robert Jenson who will deliver the 2009 Burns Lectures.

The title for the series is ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’, and will include the following lectures:

1. ‘Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation’, Wednesday March 11th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

2. ‘The Tanakh as Christian Scripture’, Thursday March 12th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

3. ‘The New Testament and the Regula Fidei’, Friday March 13th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

4. ‘The Apostles’ Creed’, Tuesday March 17th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

5. ‘The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture’, Wednesday March 18th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

6. ‘Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38′, Thursday March 19th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

For more information, contact the department.

On Bauckham’s criticism of Moltmann’s exegetical method

The November 2000 edition of International Journal of Systematic Theology includes Stephen N. Williams’ review of Richard Bauckham, ed., God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, a book I commended here. One of the things Williams’ review highlights is a tension between Bauckham and Moltmann’s exegetical method. Williams writes:

‘Substantively, the most glaringly problematic response is to Bauckham’s essay on time and eternity. This lengthy essay, it should be said, contains constructive material on eschatology and aesthetics which is well worth pondering. In its midst comes a complaint worded with surprising strength, that ‘what little exegesis’ Moltmann offers on the things of time and eternity ‘tends to be remarkably ignorant and incompetent’ engaging in ‘exegetical fantasy’, a ‘substitute for disciplined exegesis’ (pp. 179f.). Moltmann’s reply reveals what is perhaps the Achilles’ heel of his whole theology. Bauckham, he says, is a New Testament scholar and he is not; Bauckham is thus ‘bound to a literal exegesis and committed to the colleagues in his particular field’ whereas he himself must develop his own theological relationship to the texts; he (Moltmann) is a ‘hearer of the texts’ who ‘becomes a friend of the texts, who discusses with them what they are talking about’ but, unlike the biblical Richard Bauckhams of this world, the theologian, or theology, ‘is not subject to the dictation of the texts, or the dictatorship of the exegetes’ (p. 230). One does not need to hold a remotely traditional position on the role of scripture in theology to find the spectre of conceptual chaos looming over Moltmann’s formulations on this point. He has left himself with much to do in a future volume on norms and method in theology’.

A new Scripture and Theology blog

One of the more exciting things about studying at St Mary’s College (University of St Andrews) is the rich interaction between biblical studies students and their dogmatic theology comrades. There may be lots of other smells around St Mary’s College, but there is little here that smells of ‘keeping the disciplines separate’. Some of my colleagues have now started a blog called Scripture and Theology in order to facilitate discussion beyond metropolis of St Andrews. It is well worth checking out.

Here’s a taster from Luke Tallon on Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1:

God did not create his creatures to live in the colorless borderland of the evening, but in the glorious light of the breaking dawn “when the creature is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator.” With this language Augustine certainly foreshadows the twilight following the fall and the rising of the glorified Son, but Augustine also has in view the progressive development of creation under the command of the creator. Thus, Augustine provides two comforts to his audience. First, just as God in his activity in the six days of creation moved towards the goal of the Sabbath, so too God is moving creation history to a climactic “seventh day” (note: towards the fulfillment, not the abolition of creation). Whether we see this in the morning light or it is hidden from us in the colorlessness of evening, this providential movement is happening. Second, although the twilight still lingers, the darkness will never come, and in God’s own time he will usher in an eternal morning. Thus, Augustine reminds us that it is both natural and right to yearn for the morning (cf. Ben Harper’s “Morning Yearning”).

Conference: The Holy Trinity in Holy Scripture

On May 28-30, Tyndale University College will be hosting a conference on ‘The Holy Trinity in Holy Scripture: Interpreting the Bible for the Church’. They have announced a call for papers here.

The conference will be of ‘interest to scholars, preachers, students and all those who may be concerned with how an ancient set of Scriptures can speak authoritatively and powerfully today.  The conference will address questions such as:

  • Is the doctrine of the Trinity the outcome of imposing Greek metaphysics on Scripture?
  • In what sense is it responsible to claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is a biblical doctrine?
  • What kind of doctrine of Scripture is necessary if we wish to make such a claim?’

Speakers thus far include:

Dr. John Webster, Professor of Systematic Theology, King’s College, University of Aberdeen
Dr. Lewis Ayres, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Dr. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Assistant Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Dr. Nathan MacDonald, Lecturer in Old Testament, St. Andrews University
Dr. Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto
Dr. Christopher Seitz, Professor of Biblical Interpretation, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto
Dr. Peter Widdicombe, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, McMaster University

More details here.

Ratzinger on the Relationship between the Magisterium and Exegetes

Just finished reading Ratzinger’s 2003 address ‘On the Relationship between the Magisterium and Exegetes’ which he presented on the 100th Anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. I’ve always enjoyed Ratzinger’s writing, and this piece is no different. I thought I’d just share a few gems:

‘The pilgrim people of God … knows … that it neither speaks nor acts by itself, but is indebted to the ne who makes them a people: the same living God who speaks to them through the authors of the individual books [of Scripture]‘.

‘The mere objectivity of the historical method does not exist. It is simply impossible to ompletely exclude philosophy or hermeneutical foresight’.

‘A God who cannot intervene in history and reveal Himself in it is not he God of the Bible. In this way the reality of the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the effective institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper, his bodily resurrection from the dead – this is the meaning of the empty tomb – are elements of the faith as such, which it can and must defend against an only presumably superior historical knowledge. That Jesus – in all that is essential – was effectively who the Gospels reveal him to be to us is not mere historical conjecture, but a fact of faith. Objections which seek to convince us to the contrary are not the expression of an effective scientific knowledge, but are an arbitrary over-evaluation of the method. What we have learned in the meantime, moreover, is that many questions in their particulars must remain open-ended and be entrusted to a conscious interpretation of their responsibilities. This introduces the second level of the problem: it is not simply a question of making a list of historical elements indispensable to the faith. It is a question of seeing what reason can do, and why the faith can be reasonable and reason open to faith’.

‘Faith and science, Magisterium and exegesis, therefore, are no longer opposed as worlds closed in on themselves. Faith itself is a way of knowing. Wanting to set it aside does not produce pure objectivity, but comprises a point of view which excludes a particular perspective while not wanting to take into account the accompanying conditions of the chosen point of view’.

You can read the entire address here.

Living Out Scripture Meme

Andy Goodliff has invited me to ‘post that verse or story of scripture which is important to you, which you find yourself re-visiting time after time’.

I must say that I find this to be a most difficult task. On Andy’s criteria, Exodus 19:36; Psalms 32; 88; 89; Ezekiel 16; Daniel 9:9; Jonah 3:1; Hosea 11; Matthew 20:116; 27:110; Mark 5:2143; 7:2430; John 1:14, 29; John 17; 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5; 2 Corinthians 5:1121; Ephesians 1; Hebrews 910; 1 John 4:712 and Revelation 5 all loom large. (Andy did say, ‘you can make it two or even three, if you can’t reduce it to one!’)

If I just had to choose one passage, I’d say 2 Corinthians 5:1621,

‘So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’.

If they haven’t already been tagged, I’ll tag the following:

Michael Bird
Dan Goldfinch
Michael Jensen
Lawrence
Jon Mackenzie
Frank Rees
Byron Smith
Chris Tilling – Psalm 27:4
Michael Westmoreland-White
Paul Whiting - Genesis 1-50

Being addressed

In his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke warns us that the person ‘who studies theology … might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person … This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I no longer can read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavours’.

Although the Scriptures are addressed to communities, they are also addressed to me, and they come anticipating a response (Heb 3:13-15; 4:13). They do not come permitting me to impose the question, ‘How can I use this in a sermon?’ or ‘How can I find something here for my current projects?’. I recall that the first time someone spoke of God and his word in the third person, that is, about God and not with God, was when the question was posed, ‘Did God say?’ (Gen 3:1).

Vogel warned of coming ‘to the point where we no longer hear what they (the Scriptures) have to say but delude ourselves in the fatal self-deception of listening to the echo of our own way of thinking about God and the world and ourselves’. And I would add, about the nature and forms of ministry.

We would do well to take Forsyth’s advice: ‘Our aim must be an ever fresh immersion in the Bible, an immersion both scholarly and experimental’. And again, ‘Now the ideal ministry must be a Bibliocracy. It must know its Bible better than any other book’. It was said of James Denney that ‘He never reads Scripture as if he had written it: he always reads as if listening for a Voice’. May it be so for us.