NT Wright’s Inaugural Lecture: ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’

It was nearly four years ago now when I had the joy of hearing NT Wright lecture in St Andrews. It was one of the James Gregory Public Lectures, and his topic was ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’. Since then, of course, Tom Wright has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at that same university, and where just last week he gave his Inaugural Lecture titled ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’. Here’s a snippet:

The four gospels … are thus appropriately named ‘gospel’, in line both with Isaiah 40 and 52 and with the contemporary pagan usage. They themselves, in telling the story of how God became king in and through Jesus, invite their readers to the imaginative leap of saying, ‘Suppose this is how God has done it? Suppose the world’s way of empire is all wrong? Suppose there’s a different way, and suppose that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has brought it about?’ And the gospels themselves, of course, contain stories at a second level, stories purportedly told by Jesus himself, which were themselves, in their day, designed to break open the worldview of their hearers and to initiate a massive imaginative leap to which Jesus gave the name ‘faith’. The gospels invite their readers, in other words, to a multiple exercise, both of imagining what it might have been like to make that leap in the first century (both for Jesus’ hearers and then, at a second stage, for their own readers) and, as a further stage again, of imagining what it might be like to do so today. For too long gospel study has been dominated by the attempt to make the gospels reflect, simply, the faith-world of the early church. Why, after all, the radical critics used to say, would the early Christians have been particularly interested in miscellaneous stories of what Jesus actually said or did, when all that really mattered was his saving death, making the gospels simply ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’? The conservative response has been that early converts would naturally want to know more about this Jesus in whom they had come to place their faith. But this stand-off, on both sides, has usually failed to reflect the larger question: that the gospels tell the story of Jesus not out of mere historical anecdotage or faith-projection, but because this is how Jesus launched the kingdom of God, which he then accomplished in his death and resurrection. Even to hold this possibility in one’s head requires, in today’s western church, whether radical or conservative, no less than in the non-Christian world, a huge effort of the imagination.

This imagination, like all good right-brain activity, must then be firmly and thoroughly worked through the left brain, disciplined by the rigorous historical and textual analysis for which the discipline of biblical studies has rightly become famous. But, by itself, the left brain will produce, and has often produced, a discipline full of facts but without meaning, high on analysis and low on reconstruction, good at categories and weak on the kingdom.

You can read the whole lecture here.

Walter Brueggemann on biblical theology and skillful hermeneutical moves

‘… the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”

My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.

But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one …

Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting …

The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made …

As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time’. – An interview with Walter Brueggemann.

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 5 – The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

Robert Jenson‘Texts by themselves do not automatically flaunt the meaning they harbour’. From this postulation Professor Jenson proceeded – in this his fifth Burns Lecture (for earlier lectures see I, II, III, IV) – to challenge Modernist attempts to discern what the text is ‘really saying’. He warned of the limited value of efforts to understand ‘who is up to what’ with any particular writing (authorial intent), but also that the Church cannot simply opt out of Modernity’s critical agendas. The question becomes then which critical theory to adopt.

Jenson advanced that the Church is the body which must interpret the biblical texts, and to do so in light of the regula fidei, the Apostle’s Creed, and with the Triune God who is ‘up to something’ in these texts. ‘Acknowledging God’, he said, is a necessity for every interpretation except of that of the nihilist. The Triune God is a Person, and as such is the metaphysical bond between reality and discourse about reality. The alternative, Jenson contends, is that texts float free in a void of indifference. Reality and language meet only in God. This relates not only to Scriptural texts but to any texts. The Church has confidence to do hermeneutics only because the Church knows God personally, because the Church lives in a shared history with God.

From here, Jenson posed and proceeded to answer the question ‘What is creedal-critical exegesis?’ His answer: it is ‘christological common sense’, by which Jenson meant that Christ is God’s agenda in Scripture, not as allegory or figure, but ‘plainly’ (except when the genre of the text demands an allegorical or figurative reading). So, for example, Jenson contended that when Israel went into exile, the Shekhinah (who is Jesus of Nazareth) when went them. One implication of this is that when Israel is redeemed the Shekhinah will be redeemed with them. Jenson was completely unapologetic in his insistence that Old Testament references to ‘the angel of the Lord’ and ‘son of God’ are references to the second triune identity – Jesus of Nazareth. He proffered that to read the OT like this is to take seriously its ‘plain meaning’, and also that a legitimate rendering of John 1 might be, ‘In the beginning was the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah was with God …’ etc. This, at least to my mind, was not the clearest section of the lecture series.

Jenson concluded his lecture by suggesting that the historical-critical exegetes are not critical enough (particularly of their own agenda), and reminding us that the Church’s theological tradition is always an ongoing conversation rather than the passing on of a fully-defined body of knowledge. In light of the latter, he suggested that if Paul, James and Peter were not involved in genuine dispute with one another then they can be of little use to us.

One of the questions that Jenson responded to during the question time that followed concerned the notion of God as a God of war. This had come up in previous lectures too. Again, Jenson was nothing if not clear in outlining his basic position: If we don’t want God involved in the violence of history then this equates, Jenson contends, to the confession that we don’t want God involved with us. The implications of this position – the questions it raises – would undoubtedly require a second series of lectures, or at least a few more nights at the pub with friends, to unpack.

 

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

Next Lecture:

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

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

NT Wright’s Lambeth Lecture: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’

NT Wright’s lecture from the 2008 Lambeth Conference (Wednesday, July 30) is available. The topic: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’. I thought it was a good piece and was worth reposting here:

Introduction

My theme today has obviously been designed to go with today’s Indaba group work on our use of the Bible. This is an opportune time, as our Conference quickens its pace, to reflect on how we use scripture, not least how we Bishops use scripture as part of our vocation, as in the main theme of this Conference, to be ‘bishops in mission.’

Let me draw your attention to a book of mine which is foundational for what I’m going to say. Scripture and the Authority of God grew directly out of my work on both the Lambeth Commission and the International Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. It was published in America under the strange title The Last Word – strange, because it certainly wasn’t the last word on the subject, and also because if I was going to write a book called The Last Word I think it ought to be about Jesus Christ, not about the Bible. But such are the ways of publishers.

The puzzle about the book’s title, though, points forward to the first thing I want to say this afternoon, which is about the nature of biblical authority and the place of the Bible within the larger edifice of Christian theology and particularly missiology. I turn to my first main section.

1. Scripture and the Authority of God

a. Scripture as the vehicle of God’s authority

Debates about the authority of scripture have tended to get off on the wrong foot and to turn into an unproductive shouting-match. This is partly because here, as in matters of political theology, in the words of Jim Wallis ‘the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it’. And sometimes the other way round as well. We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken; the Bible itself helps us to challenge them; and when we probe deeper into the question, ‘what does it mean to say that the Bible is authoritative’, we discover a new and richer framework which simultaneously enables us to be deeply faithful to scripture and energizes and shapes us, corporately and individually, for our urgent mission into tomorrow’s world.

Consider: How does what we call ‘the authority of the Bible’ relate to the authority of God himself – and the authority of Jesus himself? When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’ He says that all authority is given to him. When we say the closing words of the Lord’s prayer, we don’t say that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to the Bible, but to God himself. And when Jesus commissions the disciples for mission in John 20, he doesn’t say ‘receive this book’ but ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Authority, then, has a trinitarian shape and content. If we want to say, as I certainly want to say in line with our entire Anglican tradition, that the Bible is in some sense our authority, the Bible itself insists that that sentence must be read as a shorthand way of saying something a bit more complicated, something that will enable us to get some critical distance on the traditional shouting-match. From very early on in the church, it became clear that those entrusted with God’s mission included some who were called to write – to write letters on the one hand, and to collect, edit and write up the stories about Jesus, and the story of Jesus, on the other hand. The composition-criticism of the last few decades has moved us on a long way from the old half-truth that the biblical authors ‘didn’t think they were writing scripture’. Paul certainly believed that God had entrusted him with an authoritative mission, and that his letter-writing formed part of that Spirit-given, Christ-shaped, kingdom-bringing activity. And the gospel writers, in their different ways, write in such a manner as to say, with quite a rich artistry: here is the continuation and culmination of the great story you know from Israel’s scriptures, and this is how, through its central character, it is now transformed into the narrative of God’s dealings not just with Israel but with the whole world. Any first-century Jew who has the nerve to begin a book with ‘In the beginning’, weaving the themes of Genesis and Exodus, of Isaiah and the Psalms, into the story of Israel’s Messiah, and doing so in such a way as to provide a framework around and energy for the mission and life of the followers of this Messiah – anyone who does something like this is either astonishingly un-self-aware or is making the definite claim to be writing something that corresponds, in a new mode, to the scriptural narrative of ancient Israel.

From very early on the first Christians discovered that the church was to be shaped, and its mission and life taken forward, by the work of people who were called to write about Jesus, and about what it meant to follow him in his kingdom-mission. The new dispensation, the Messianic age, did not mean the abandonment of the notion of being shaped by a God-given book, but rather its transformation into something new, new genres and themes developing out of the old. But this already indicates that the Bible was not something detached, an entity apart from the church, simply standing over against it. The Bible as we know it, Old and New Testaments, was, from the first, part of the life of God’s people, and remained so as it was read in worship, studied in controversy, and made the basis for mission. But this did not mean then, and does not mean now, that the Bible can be twisted into whichever shape the church wants at a particular time. You can’t say, as some have tried to say, ‘the church wrote the Bible, so the church can rewrite the Bible’. Paul would have had sharp words to say about that, as would the author of Revelation. From very early on, all the more powerful for being implicit and not yet much thought through, we find the first Christians living under scripture, that is, believing that this book is its peculiar gift from its Lord, through the work of his Spirit, designed to enable the church to be the church, which is of course as we have been thinking throughout this Conference not a static thing but to be the church in mission, to be sent into the world with the good news of God’s kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the power of that same Spirit.

b. God’s Authority and God’s Kingdom

When we say ‘the authority of scripture’, then, we mean – if we know our business – God’s authority, Christ’s authority, somehow exercised through the Bible. But what is ‘God’s authority’ all about? To look again at scripture itself, it is clear that one of the most common models assumed by many in today’s world simply won’t do. We have lived for too long in the shadow of an older Deism in which God is imagined as a celestial C. E. O., sitting upstairs and handing down instructions from a great height. The Bible is then made to fit into the ontological and epistemological gap between God and ourselves; and, if it is the Deist God you are thinking of, that gap has a particular shape and implication. The Bible is then bound to become merely a source-book for true doctrines and right ethics. That is better than nothing, but it is always vulnerable to the charge, made frequently these days, that it is after all only an old book and that we’ve learnt a lot since then. The Left doesn’t get it, and often all the Right can do is to respond with an ever more shrill repetition of ‘the Bible, the Bible the Bible’. As the late great Phil Ochs sang during Vietnam,

And they argue through the night,

Black is black and white is white,

And walk away both knowing they are right;

And nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.

I know that quoting a Vietnam protest song dates me, but I guess that I’m not the only one in this room radically shaped by the events of the late 1960s . . .

The real problem with the Deism that infected so much of the western world in the eighteenth century and dominates it still – thank God for our brothers and sisters from elsewhere who didn’t have that problem! – is that it lives by serious reaction against the whole notion of God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’. (Actually, much Protestant theology couldn’t really cope with this idea either, perhaps in reaction against the perceived worldly kingdom of mediaeval Catholicism, which is why it privileged a particular reading of St Paul over against the gospels, a problem still with us in the guise of the Bultmannian legacy.) But when we re-read the gospels and the kingdom-announcement we find there into the centre of our own life and thought, we discover that God is not a distant faceless bureaucrat handing down ‘to do’ lists, our ‘commands for the day’. The God of scripture is with us in the world, his world, the world in which he lived and died and rose again in the person of his Son, in which he breathes new life through the person of his Spirit. Scripture is the vehicle of the kingdom-bringing ‘authority’, in that sense, of this God. That is why the Left, which prefers a detached Deism so it can get on and do its own thing, disregarding instructions that seem to come from a distant God or a distant past, gets it wrong, and why the Right, which wants an authoritarian command from on high, doesn’t get it.

There is a particular problem here, because our Anglican formularies speak of scripture and its authority in terms of ‘things which are to be believed for eternal salvation’. Living as they did within the late mediaeval western view, our Anglican fathers rightly saw scripture as the norm which guided you towards God’s promised salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; but, like everyone else at the time, they saw that salvation less in terms of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven and more in terms of being rescued from this earth for a ‘salvation’ somewhere else. We can’t go into this in any detail, but I just want to note that part of the exciting work today of re-integrating gospels and epistles and rethinking the whole notion of the kingdom and particularly new creation and resurrection is not without its effect on the place and role of scripture in the whole process. Basically, I believe that scripture is the book through which the church is enabled to be the church, to be the people of God anticipating his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, and that this fleshes out what our formularies say in a three-dimensional and energetic fashion. I have said more about all this in the relevant section of Surprised by Hope. And to say more about it I move to my third sub-section.

c. Scripture and the Story of God’s Mission

So how does the Bible function in the way I have described? Answer: by being itself; and ‘being itself’ means, primarily, being itself as story. I do not mean by this what some have seen as ‘mere story’, that is, a cheerfully fictive account to be relegated to the world of ‘myth’. The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from Chaos to Order, from first creation to new creation, from the Garden to the City, from covenant to renewed covenant, and all fitting together in a way that none of the authors can have seen but which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at. Speaking as a student of ancient literature, I am continually astonished by the shape of scripture, which can’t simply be explained away as the product of some clever decisions by a third- or fourth-century Council. Of course scripture contains many sub-plots, and many parts which are not in themselves ‘narrative’ at all – poems, meditations, wisdom sayings, and so on. But the narrative shape continues to stand out, and indeed to stand over against all attempts to flatten scripture out either into a puzzle-book of secret gnostic wisdom, which deconstructs the stories, or into a book of true answers to dogmatic and ethical questions, which also deconstructs the stories but from a different angle.

And this raises the question, how can a narrative be authoritative? This is the right question to ask, and it raises some exciting possibilities. As I have set out at length elsewhere, scripture offers precisely the unfinished narrative of God’s heaven-and-earth project, God’s great design, as Paul puts it, echoing the Law and the Prophets, to join everything in heaven and earth into one in Christ. And the unfinished narrative functions like an unfinished play, in which those who belong to Jesus Christ are now called to be the actors, taking forward the drama towards its intended conclusion. This is actually a far stronger, and more robust, version of ‘authority’ than the one which simply imagines the Bible as a source-book for true dogmatic and ethical propositions. Of course such propositions are to be found in it, and they matter; but they matter as the tips of a much, much larger iceberg, which is the entire drama. And it is by soaking ourselves in that whole drama that we, God’s people in Christ Jesus, are to live with and under scripture’s authority, not simply by knowing which bits to look up on which topics, but by becoming people of this story, people formed and shaped in our imaginations and intuitions by the overall narrative, so that we come to know by second nature not only what scripture says on particular topics but why it says those things. And living under scriptural authority, contrary to what has been said by liberalism ever since the eighteenth century, does not then mean being kept in an infantile state, shut up to merely parrotting an ancient text, but rather coming alive, growing up, taking responsibility for seeing how the narrative has gone forward and where it must go next. We are, in short, to be improvisers, which as any musician knows doesn’t mean playing out of tune or out of time but rather discerning what is appropriate in terms of the story so far and the story’s intended conclusion.

This, I submit, has a strong claim to be an intrinsically Anglican way of thinking about scripture, insofar as there can be said to be such a thing. I am always intrinsically suspicious of claims to discover a specifically or intrinsically Anglican approach to anything, not just because of the myriad of local variations but because of the characteristic Anglican claim that Anglicans have no specific doctrine of their own – it’s just that if something is true, Anglicans believe it. The truth behind that old joke is that we have tried over the years, when it comes to scripture at least, to nourish a tradition of careful scholarship, rooted in philology, history and the early Fathers, hand in hand with a readiness to let the Bible resonate in new ways in new situations. As an example of this I cherish Brooke Fosse Westcott, Bishop of Durham a hundred and ten years ago, who is buried close to J. B. Lightfoot in the great chapel at Auckland Castle. Westcott is known, of course, for his meticulous textual criticism, and his magisterial commentaries on John and Hebrews. But in Durham he is also remembered for being the Bishop who, before the days of trade unions, settled a long and damaging miners’ strike by negotiating so hard with the mine owners that eventually they met the workers’ demands. For Westcott, careful biblical scholarship and hard street-level work for God’s kingdom were two parts of the same whole, and we should be proud when Anglicanism reflects similar combinations.

All this is of course nurtured by the straightforward but deeply powerful tradition of the daily offices, with the great narratives of scripture read through day by day, preferably on a lectio continua basis, so that ‘living prayerfully within the story’ is the most formative thing, next to the Eucharist itself, which Anglicans do. Classic mattins and evensong, in fact, are basically showcases for scripture, and the point of reading Old and New Testaments like that is not so much to ‘remind ourselves of that bit of the Bible’, as to use that small selection as a window through which we can see, with the eyes of mind and heart, the entire sweep of the whole Bible, so that our ‘telling of the story’ is not actually aimed primarily at informing or reminding one another but rather at praising God for his mighty acts, and acquiring the habit of living within the story of them as we do so. That, I suggest, is the heart of Anglican Bible study.

Seeing the Bible in terms of its great story enables us, in particular, to develop a layered and nuanced hermeneutic which retains the full authority of the whole Bible while enabling us to understand why it is, for instance, that some parts of the Old Testament are still directly relevant to us while others are not, and how this is not arbitrary but rooted in serious theological and exegetical principle. In the book I have developed the model of the five-act play, with Creation and Fall as the first two acts, then Israel, then Jesus himself, and then the act in which we ourselves are still living, whose final scene we know from passages like Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 and 22. The point of this model is partly to explain the notion of ‘improvising’ I mentioned earlier – when living within the fifth act, we are required to improvise our way to the necessary conclusion while remaining completely faithful to the narrative, and the characterisations, of the earlier acts and indeed to the opening scenes of our own present act, i.e. Easter and Pentecost. But it is also partly to provide a way of understanding how it is that though, for instance, the book of Leviticus is part of our story, a non-negotiable part of that story, it is not the part where we presently live. When you live in Act 5, you cannot repeat, except for very special effect, a speech which was made in Act 3. Thus we do not offer animal sacrifice; the Letter to the Hebrews makes that abundantly clear. A similar argument is mounted by Paul in Galatians about God’s gift of the Mosaic law: it was good and God-given, but those of its prescriptions which separate out Jews from Gentiles are no longer appropriate, since we are not any longer in Act 3 but in Act 5, and with that eschatological moment the old distinctions are done away. This could be pursued at much greater length, but let me just make one particular and important point. There are of course a good many features of the Pentateuch which are not only retained but enhanced in the New Testament; one cannot assume that because some features of Mosaic law are abolished that all are equally redundant, just as it would be a bad mistake to suppose that the reason some parts have become redundant is simply because they’re old or because we now ‘know better’. Things are not that shallow. In fact, it gradually becomes clear that the OT is continually calling Israel to a way of life which is about discovering a genuinely human existence, and that, granted the achievement of Jesus the Messiah in Act 4, a good many features of the Mosaic law are not only retained but enhanced. This holds true for the Decalogue itself, with the sole exception of the sabbath law, and it certainly holds for the codes of sexual conduct, as a great wealth of scholarship has shown again and again. In the whole Bible, what men and women do sexually resonates with larger cosmic issues, and particular commands and prohibitions are not arbitrary, detached rules, but tip-of-the-iceberg features revealing a deep and structured worldview underneath. I commend the five-act model to you as a creative and fresh way of understanding and using the Bible for all it’s worth.

But it is of course particularly designed to explain how the great story of the Bible is designed to point us to our mission and to equip us precisely for that mission. The story begins with the creation of heaven and earth, and it ends with their eventual marriage, their coming together in fulfilling, God-ordained union. The biblical story reaches its climax of course in Jesus Christ, where this union of heaven and earth was inaugurated, modelled and accomplished – against all the powers that would keep them apart – through his death and resurrection. And the mission of the church in the power of the Spirit is to implement the achievement of Jesus and so to anticipate the eventual goal. Mission, in other words, takes place within the overall narrative of scripture, and is reinforced and kept in place by the reading and studying of the text that speaks this way, drawing together all features of wider culture that point in this direction and standing over against all features of wider culture which point elsewhere. It is only by living within this overall narrative that we, as bishops committed to leading the church in mission, can keep our bearings when so many elements of our own culture and our various traditions would threaten to sidetrack us this way or that. As I have written elsewhere, the larger biblical narrative offers us a framework for developing and taking forward a wholistic mission which refuses to split apart full-on evangelism, telling people about Jesus with a view to bringing them to faith, and full-on kingdom-of-God work, labouring alongside anyone and everyone with a heart for the Common Good so that God’s sovereign and saving rule may be glimpsed on earth as in heaven. Anglicanism has tended to oscillate between these two, between a primary reading of the epistles as being about private and personal salvation and a primary reading of the gospels as being about ‘social justice’. The two need one another, and in the best Anglican traditions they join up, like all the other complementarities in God’s world. So my point at this stage is this: a serious Anglican reading of scripture can and should generate a five-act hermeneutic in which our goals in mission are greatly clarified and our energy and sense of direction for that mission reinforced, as the Spirit uses our telling and retelling of the story to shape the habits of our hearts, minds and wills. And to say that is of course to say that, at the very heart of it all, the point of scripture is to root, form and shape our spirituality as a people and as individuals. We are to be a scripture-shaped praying people, which of course means a Jesus-shaped praying people, which of course includes being a scripture-shaped and Jesus-shaped eucharistic people. It is out of that scripturally formed well of personal and corporate spirituality, continually confronting, transforming and directing us, that we draw water to be refreshed as we find our way forward in the service of God, his gospel and his kingdom. But all this points us on to our present culture and the challenges it presents. How can scripture form us for mission in tomorrow’s world?

2. Scripture and the Task of the Church

a. Foundation: Bible and Culture

The confrontation between Christian faith and contemporary culture, between (if you like) Jerusalem and Athens, is as old as the gospel itself. It is rooted in turn in the confrontation between the Old Testament people of God and the surrounding cultures of Egypt, Canaan, Assyrian, Babylon and then, later, Persia, Greece, Syria and eventually Rome. Indeed, cultural confrontation and the complex negotiations it generated are woven into the very fabric of scripture itself. Jonathan Sacks, who we so revelled in listening to last night, wrote an article the other day about the way in which languages without vowels, such as Hebrew, tend to go from right to left, driven by right-brain intuition, whereas languages with vowels, such as Greek, tend to go from left to right, as the left-brain passion for getting things worked out accurately drives from that side. I asked him at dinner whether he’d had any feedback on the article, and he said rather disappointedly that he hadn’t; but he drew the moral, which I now develop, that part of the power of the early Christian faith was to take a right-brain religion such as Judaism and express it within a left-brain language like Greek. (Of course, you could argue that the Rabbis made up for lost left-brain time with the Mishnah and Talmud, but that would be another story.) From the very beginning Christianity was engaged with its many surrounding cultures, and no one model – Niebuhr, you recall, explored five in his classic book Christ and Culture – will catch all the nuances we might wish. Even in a short address such as Paul’s on the Areopagus we can see all kinds of different things going on. Paul is in head-on collision with the great temples all around him, and the endless stream of sacrifices being offered at them, yet he can begin from the Altar to the Unknown God and work up from there, quoting Greek poets on the way. And, reading between the lines, we can see how the message he brought could say both Yes and No to the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Academic. The Stoic supposes that all is predetermined, that divinity is simply suffused within the world and working its purpose out. Well, says Paul, you are right that God is not far from any of us, but wrong to suppose that God and the world are the same thing. The Epicurean supposes that God, or the gods, are a long way away, and that the best thing to do is make such shift as we can in this world. Well, says Paul, you are right that God and the world are not the same thing, but you are wrong to suppose that God is not interested in the world, and us human creatures. The Academic sits on the fence: there isn’t really enough evidence to be sure about the gods, so it’s best to keep the old state religion going just in case (a position not unfamiliar, alas, to some Anglicans).Well, says Paul, you are right that there hasn’t really been quite enough evidence to be sure of anything; but now all that has changed, because there is a man called Jesus whom God raised from the dead, and he is going to sort everything out from top to bottom.

Now of course the point of all that is not simply an interesting set of skirmishes about different ideas. The point is that these ideas had legs, and went about in the ancient world making things happen. They altered the way you saw things, the way you did things, the goals you set yourself and the ways you ordered your world and society. From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day.

There is of course a very particular Anglican spin to some of this. Many parts of the older Anglican world, not least here in England itself, have become very used to going with the flow of the culture, on the older assumption that basically England was a Christian country so that the Church would not be compromised if it reflected the local social and cultural mores. That strand of Anglicanism has always been in danger of simply acting as Chaplain to whatever happened to be going on at the time, whether it was blessing bombs and bullets in the first world war or going to tea at Buckingham Palace. Within that world, the Bible has often been quietly truncated. We don’t like the bits about judgment, so we miss them out. We are embarrassed by the bits about sex, so we miss them out too – and then we wonder why, in a world full of hell and sex, people imagine the Bible is irrelevant! The Bible is a kind of spiritual Rorschach test: if you find you’re cutting bits out, or adding bits in, it may be a sign that you’re capitulating to cultural pressure. Equally, of course, there are many parts of the Anglican world where nothing but confrontation has been possible for a long time, and there people may have to learn the difficult lesson that actually the world is still charged with the grandeur of God, and that the biblical Christian must learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, no matter who they are, what they believe or how they behave. It is crucial to our vocation, and to our particular vocation granted our particular histories, that we rediscover the art, which itself is rooted in scripture, of discriminating (as Paul says) between things that differ, and of affirming what can and must be affirmed and opposing what can and must be opposed. Those of us who are involved in the business of politics and government know that this is a difficult and often thankless task, but it must be undertaken.

b. The Bible and Gnosticism

All this brings us to three particular features of tomorrow’s world which stand out particularly and call for a biblical engagement as we take forward our God-given mission. I am here summarizing the Noble Lectures I was privileged to give at Harvard University two years ago, which are yet to be published. The three features are gnosticism, empire and postmodernity, which fit together in fascinating ways and which provide a grid of cultural and personal worldviews within which a great many of our contemporaries live today. I speak particularly of the western world, and I regret that I am not qualified to do more of a ‘world tour’. But I remind all of us that, whether we like it or not, when the West sneezes everyone else catches a cold, so that cultural trends in Europe and North America will affect the whole world. (I notice that, though the current American election will affect everybody on the face of the earth for good or ill, only Americans get to vote. This strikes me as odd, though of course we British were in the same position for long enough and didn’t seem to mind at the time.)

Addressing these three issues could sound like an abstract intellectual exercise, but believe me it isn’t. This is the real world where people struggle and sin and suffer, and it is fatally easy for the church to be pulled down into the cultural assumptions of the day and so have no gospel, nothing to offer, no basis for mission or content to it either.

The first of the three makes this point graphically. When I was in college we studied Gnosticism as a strange ancient phenomenon, little imagining that it was already alive and well in western culture and that it would sweep through our world dramatically, not only in obvious thing like The Da Vinci Code but in the subtext of half the Hollywood movies and, more sadly, half the would-be theological thinking in our church. Two features stand out. First, a radical dualism in which the created order is irrelevant because we, the enlightened ones, are just passing through it and can use or ignore it as we please. At this point the Gnosticism of the right says, We can do what we like with our planet, because it’s all going to be destroyed soon and we’ll be snatched away to a distant heaven. And the Gnosticism of the left says, We can do what we like with our bodies, because they are irrelevant to the reality within us. And both are held in place by the larger Gnosticism of the western Enlightenment itself which has said, for the last two hundred years, We westerners are the enlightened ones, with our modern science and technology; we can make up the rules, we can saunter around the world exploiting its resources and its people, we can drop bombs on people to make whole countries do what we want, and it doesn’t matter much because we, the enlightened ones, are the natural possessors of justice, freedom and peace so those other people don’t matter as much as we do.

Along with the radical dualism goes Gnosticism as a religion, not of redemption, but of self-discovery. This is the real ‘false gospel’ at the heart of a good many contemporary debates. The Gnostic does not want to be rescued; he or she wants to discover ‘who they really are’, the inner spark of divine life. There is even a danger that we Anglicans spend time discussing ‘who we really are’, as though there were some inner thing, the Anglican spark, and if only we could identify that then we’d be all right. And in some of our most crucial ethical debates people have assumed for a long time that ‘being true to myself’ was all that really mattered (at this point the existentialism and romanticism of the last two hundred years reinforce the underlying gnosticism). This is a religion of pride rather than of faith, of self-assertion rather than of hope, of a self-love which is a parody of the genuinely biblical self-love which is regard for oneself, body and all, as reflecting the image of the creator.

And this false religion, though it often uses the language of Christianity, makes it impossible for people to have real Christian faith, or for that matter real Jewish faith; because in the Bible you discover ‘who you really are’ only when the living God, the creator, is rescuing you and giving you a new identity, a new status, a new name. The Bible is itself the story of, and the energy to bring about, the redemption of creation, ourselves included, not the discovery within ourselves of a spark which just needs to express itself. Gnosticism hates resurrection, because resurrection speaks of God doing a new thing within and for the material world, putting it right at last, rather than God throwing the material world away and allowing the divine spark to float off free. And it is resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus in the past, and of ourselves in the future – which is the ground of all Christian ethical life in the present. Christian ethics is not a matter of ‘discovering who you truly are’ and then being true to that. It is a matter, as Jesus and Paul insist, of dying to self and coming alive to God, of taking up the cross, of inaugurated eschatology, of becoming in oneself not ‘what one really is’ already but ‘what one is in Christ’, a new creation, a small, walking, breathing anticipation of the promised time when the earth shall be filled with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. A biblically-based mission must learn from the great narrative of scripture to set its face against all Gnosticism, because it cuts the nerve of the mission both to the world of politics and society and to the life of every man, woman and child.

c. The Bible and Empire

Second, Empire. We British had an empire on which the sun never set, and we have spent the last hundred years puzzling over what went wrong and counting the cost. As I have said often enough, I hope and pray my beloved American friends don’t have to do the same. Let’s be clear: there is nothing absolutely wrong with empire in itself; empires come and go, they always have done, and the point is not ‘wouldn’t it be a better world without empires at all’ but ‘how can empires be called to account, be reminded that God is God and that they are not?’ All empires declare that they possess justice, freedom and peace; Greece did it, Rome did it, the British did it a century ago, the Americans do it now. Who will be next, and are we ready for that with a biblical narrative of empire that will say, with Colossians 1, that all the powers in heaven and on earth were created in and through and for Jesus Christ and were redeemed by the blood of his cross? Are we ready, in our biblically-shaped mission, to transcend the futile rhetoric of left and right – a very recent invention, in fact itself an invention of the Enlightenment – and to understand power the way the Bible understands it, as given by God to bring order to his creation on the one hand and, on the other, to anticipate in the present that final putting-to-rights of all things which we are promised? If we are thinking biblically we have a narrative which encodes a mission, the mission of God both to the rulers of this age and to those whose lives are either enhanced by them or crushed by them, or quite often simply confused by them in the middle. We in the West need to learn from our brothers and sisters who live under regimes which are deeply hostile to the church and would prefer that it disappeared altogether. And, dare I say, we need to learn these lessons quite quickly, because people are already talking about the next great superpower, and whether it is India or China we can be sure that, unless something truly extraordinary happens, the world will be dominated for the first time since ancient Rome by a superpower that does not stand within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which will see that tradition as a threat. If we don’t prepare ourselves now for the future reality, and if we don’t learn the biblical lessons here and now of what Christian mission looks like under empire, we will fail not only the world of our own day but also the world of our children’s and grandchildren’s day.

Notice how empire and Gnosticism go together. Gnosticism arises under empire, because when you are powerless to change anything about your world you are tempted to turn inwards and suppose that a spiritual, inner reality is all that matters. Carl Jung put it nicely if chillingly: who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. Welcome to the world of navel-gazing. That’s why second-century gnosticism arose when it did, following the collapse of the final Jewish revolt in 135 AD. And the empires of the world are delighted when people embrace gnosticism. Again in the second century the people who were reading the Gospel of Thomas and other books of the same sort were not burnt at the stake or thrown to the lions. That was reserved for the people who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest. There is a massive lie out there at the moment, which is that the canon of scripture colludes with imperial power while the gnostic literature subverts it. That is the exact opposite of the truth. Caesar couldn’t care less if someone wants to pursue a private spirituality. But if they go around saying that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to the crucified and risen Jesus, Caesar shivers in his shoes. And going around saying that is at the heart of Christian mission, which is sustained and energised by scripture itself, the book that will keep not only individual Christians but whole churches steadfast and cheerful in that mission when everything seems bent on blowing them off course.

c. Postmodernity

Whenever I mention postmodernity my wife either groans or yawns. Sadly she’s not here today to demonstrate the point, but before you have those same reactions let me say what I mean. We live in a world – the western world, but increasingly the global community – where truth is at a discount. Relativism is everywhere; there is only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. Facts don’t matter, spin is all that counts. Likewise, and deeply worrying for the church, because we easily get sucked into this, argument and reason are set aside, and instead of debate we have the shrill swapping of hurt emotions. ‘I am a victim; you are prejudiced; end of conversation’. Or, in one of those worrying irregular verbs, ‘I am speaking from the heart, you are prejudiced, he or she is a bigot.’ My friends, this entire way of thinking – a world where the only apparent moral argument is the volume of the victim’s scream – is an affront to the biblical world, to the Anglican world, to the world of scripture, tradition and reason. Reason is not the same as emotion or indeed experience. Genuine screams of genuine victims matter enormously, of course, and are all taken up into the cry of dereliction from the cross. But they are to be addressed, not with more screams, still less competing ones, but with healing, biblical wisdom. The reaction against scripture within postmodern Christianity is no worse than the reaction against reason itself. And ‘experience’, which for John Wesley when he elevated it alongside scripture, tradition and reason meant ‘the experience of God the Spirit at work transforming my life’, has come to mean ‘whatever I feel’ – which is no more a safe guide to anything than a glance at the English sky in the morning is a safe guide to the weather later in the day.

Of course, postmodernity doesn’t stop with the deconstruction of truth. It deconstructs the self as well. At this point the Gnostic would do well to hide, because in postmodernity there is no such thing as the inner spark, the true inward reality. That’s why, for instance, in today’s debates among the gay community, the essentialist position (‘this is who I am’) is increasingly discounted by the constructivists (‘this is what I choose to be today’) – though you wouldn’t know that from the way the church still talks about the matter. But the greatest deconstruction of all is of course that of the overarching narrative, the great stories. Big stories, like truth-claims, declares the postmodernist, are claims to power. Live within the modernist story and the modernists will end up running the show. That’s how the world has worked for long enough.

And of course that presents quite a challenge to the Christian; because the Bible, as I have stressed, is precisely a great narrative, the huge, sprawling story of creation and new creation, of covenant and new covenant, with Jesus in the middle of it. That is why many Christians today shrink their mission to the mere attempt to give some people, here and there, a spiritual life and a hope out beyond, rather than taking the mission where it needs to go, into every corner of God’s world and its systems and structures. But please note: the deconstruction of power-stories is itself a claim to power. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus ‘what is truth’, because for him the only truth was what came out of the scabbard of a sword. Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 18 and 19 stands near the heart of a biblical theology of mission, though sadly I’m not sure if that will come out in our Bible Studies in the next few days. In other words, though the postmodernist sneers at empire and its grandiose dreams, in the final analysis it colludes with it. It can scoff, but it cannot subvert. All those years of Jacques Derrida, and we still got George Bush. And Tony Blair.

So what does the Bible itself have to say on the matter? How can the great story I’ve been speaking of respond to the postmodern challenge – because make no mistake, if it doesn’t, our mission will shrink into a sad little parody of its true self. The answer is that the story of scripture is not a story of power, but a story of love – genuine love, overflowing love for the world God made. Note carefully what happens at this point.

I said postmodernity had one moral value only, the scream of the victim. That isn’t quite true. It has one other: the duty to, as is often said ‘embrace the Other’. This has come from various sources and it’s sometimes joined up, though I have to say with minimal justification, with some elements of the work of Jesus. This is at the heart of the appeal that we ‘live with difference’, and so on. I have spoken about that elsewhere; it all depends on a decision as to which differences you can and should live with and which you shouldn’t and can’t. There is an enormous amount of begging the question currently on this matter. But when we consider the biblical narrative we discover that here again postmodernity has produced a parody of the reality. In scripture, God makes a world that is other than himself, and that is full of complementarities: heaven and earth, night and day, sea and land, vegetation and animals, and ultimately humans, with the complementarity of male and female growing more evident within that world until it is finally affirmed, producing a picture of a world of radical differences with the differences made for one another. Within the biblical narrative, of course, this reaches its great conclusion when heaven and earth finally come together, with the new Jerusalem as the bride of Christ. This is the biblical story of love: the love of God for his world, the love within that world for that which is radically different from me, from us, the love which really does ‘embrace the other’, not in a casual and floppy sense of ‘anyone who’s a bit different from me’, but in the deep ontological sense of a love which goes out into a different country altogether to affirm the goodness of God’s creation there and to discover, in that affirmation, the greatest delight which mirrors the delight of God the creator, the delight of Christ the lover.

What we desperately need, if we are to pursue a biblical, Christian and indeed Anglican mission in the postmodern world, is the Spirit of Truth. There is no time to develop this further, but it is vital to say this one thing. We have got so used to the postmodern sneer that any truth-claim is instantly suspect. And at that point many Christians have lurched back to the apparent safety of a modernist claim: conservative modernists claim that they can simply look up truth in the Bible, without realising what sort of book it is, while radical modernists claim they find truth in today’s science, without realising what sort of a thing that is either. But we cannot go back; we have to go on; and the Spirit of Truth, often invoked in favour of any and every innovation in the church, is actually at work when we live within the great story, the love story, God’s love-story, and become in turn agents, missional agents, of that story in the world. Truth is not something we possess and put in our pockets, because truth is grounded in the goodness of creation, the promise of redemption for that creation, and the vocation of human beings to speak God’s word both of naming the original creation and of working for new creation – the word, in other words, of mission. The Spirit of Truth is given so that, living within the great biblical story, we can engage in those tasks.

Conclusion

There is much more to say, as Jesus himself said in the Farewell Discourses, but you cannot bear it now. I hope I have said enough to spark off some discussion and open up some topics of more than a little relevance to who we are as bishops in the Anglican Communion and what we should be about in our mission in tomorrow’s world. I have tried to offer a robust account of the way in which the Bible is designed to be the vehicle of God’s authority, not in an abstract sense but in the dynamic sense of the story through which God’s mission in the world goes forward in the power of the Spirit. And within that larger picture, the small details slot into place, not as isolated fragments of disjointed moral or theological musings, but, as I said before, as tips of the iceberg which show what is there all along just under the surface. There are other questions I haven’t addressed, not least the way in which the Bible demands to be read both individually and corporately in each generation, so that each generation can grow up intellectually, morally, culturally and Christianly. We will never get to the point where scholarship has said all that needs to be said and subsequent generations will just have to look up the right answers. Thank God it isn’t like that. But, as we in turn give ourselves to the tasks of being bishops-in-mission, of being biblical-bishops-in-mission, we must always remind ourselves that the Bible is most truly itself when it is being, through the work of God’s praying people and not least their wise shepherds, the vehicle of God’s saving, new-creational love going out, not to tell the world it is more or less all right as it is, but to do for the whole creation, and every man, woman and child within it, what God did for the children of Israel in Egypt, and what God did for the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus: to say ‘I have heard your crying, and I have come to the rescue.’

Source: ntwrightpage.com

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.

Biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue 2

Dogmaticians and biblical critics ought to dialogue more readily, for they share the same task of edifying the Church. They do not do this by their own unaided powers, but in the power of the same Risen One for whose body they exists, and for whose Person they bear witness to. John Webster has reminded is that ‘the particular task of theology is to attest the truth of the gospel in the wake of Christ’s own self-attestation’ (John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM, 2003), 3). So much as the Church seeks to do this articulating work, it concentrates on two fundamental tasks, exegesis and dogmatics. Webster rightly asserts:

‘Exegesis is of supremely critical importance, because the chief instrument through which Christ publishes the gospel is Holy Scripture. Exegesis is the attempt to hear what the Spirit says to the Churches; without it, theology cannot even begin to discharge its office. Dogmatics is complimentary but strictly subordinate to the exegetical task. It is not an improvement upon Holy Scripture, replacing the informal, occasional, language of Scripture by conceptual forms which are better organized, more sophisticated or more firmly grounded. Rather, dogmatics seeks simply to produce a set of flexible accounts of the essential content of the gospel as it is found in Holy Scripture, with the aim of informing, guiding and correcting the Church’s reading. Dogmatics attempts a ‘reading’ of the gospel which in its turn assists the Church’s reading. Developing such a ‘reading’ of the gospel entails, of course, the development (or annexation) of conceptual vocabularies and forms of argument whose range and sophistication may seem distant from the more immediate, urgent idioms of Scripture. But though technical sophistication is not without its attendant perils, it is only vicious when allowed to drift free from the proper end of theology, which is the saints’ edification. When that end is kept in view and allowed to govern the work of theology, then dogmatics can be pursued as a modest work of holy reason, transparent to the gospel and doing its service in the Church as the school of Christ.’ (Webster, Holiness, 3-4)

Biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue

The eye cannot say to the ear, “I have no need of you”’: biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue

Whilst there certainly remains a place for a full-blown treatment of the topic at hand, the purpose of this brief paper is considerably more modest: to contribute some thoughts to a round-table discussion by a handful of folk concerned with the intercourse between biblical studies and dogmatic theology.

While it has not always been so and, indeed, is a relatively recent phenomenon, the legacy of separation between biblical and dogmatic theology is, sadly, both deep seated and profound. In the right corner, weighing more pounds than I care to guess, many dogmaticians have become suspicious of biblical exegetes, accusing them of a lack of theological grounding. While in the left corner, biblical exegetes, weighing just as many pounds, share a suspicion of dogmaticians and their projects, accusing them of a lack of careful precision in handling sacred texts.

Occasionally, one of these fighters remembers why they are really there and ventures to leave the corner and move closer to the centre of the ring, much to the disdain of most of the crew in both corners. Some, however, cheer on quietly (and I suspect that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering them on) sensing that what is going on here might be akin to the very reason they joined their team in the first place. But they are usually too nervous to go that way themselves, frightened of being accused not merely of selling out their team, but also of neglecting to take with them some of their teams most valuable weapons. Indeed, some don’t even want to wear the obligatory gloves.

As the clock ticks down, and the inevitable dead end approaches, the two groups decide that it might all be too difficult and bloody to engage one another at this time. So, whilst agreeing that it would be good to ‘get together sometime’, for now the Scriptures can be left to the exegetes domain, whilst the dogmaticians are left to pursue themes more philosophical. In this all too common scenario, both teams loose, and the one body (the Church) that they both exist to serve loses the help that it has every right to expect from both teams.

In the past, that one body was given people who could command both disciplines. I am thinking of scholar-pastors like Luther and Calvin. The latter wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, gave himself to their exposition, and also wrote a little theological work called The Institutes of the Christian Religion so that ‘new Christians’ would have an interpretative lens through which to understand his commentaries.

Whilst both biblical and dogmatic theology share the task of expounding the Church’s Scriptures, and, more specifically the Scripture’s Gospel, for the Church, they do so from different corners of the ring. Nevertheless, the aim of both ‘teams’ ought to be complimentary – to give the best and clearest illumination of the Gospel to which the Scriptures bear witness, returning again and again to the witness of Scripture in light of the subject matter, and of speaking to and with the Church the Bible’s Gospel according to the inner logic of its own content and purpose.

While I concur with something of the spirit of what is being offered, I do not think that the assertion that ‘dogmatic theology begins with the results of biblical theology … [trusting] biblical theology to provide the basic orientation to the true subject matter of scripture’[1] is good enough. Biblical theologians need to do some work in dogmatics, turning to the theological meta-narrative of the Scripture’s Gospel and to the Church’s Creeds to inform their work, and biblical dogmaticians ought to keep returning to and mining the Scriptures to inform and provide a ‘rule’ for their projects. For dogmaticians to refuse the insights of the biblical critics is to refuse ‘light from heaven. The critics have done wonders not only for particular passages, but for our construction of the whole Bible and its historic atmosphere. They have, in certain respects, made a new book of it, and in a sense have saved it.’[2] Here I believe Adolf Schlatter[3] and Karl Barth have both provided different models for us worthy of emulation. Not only were they both consciously seeking to serve the Church in its proclamation, but their respective corpora betray page after page of solid exegetical homework.[4] I lament that many (certainly not all) of Barth’s students, and their successors, have not followed in their doktorvater’s footsteps here and have too quickly moved to begin where Barth started, bypassing the work he did to get there. Because of this, I contend, they are of less service to the Church and its preaching than Barth is.

Theology is the study of God, and it is only possible because of God. More specifically it is possible because God has chosen to reveal not merely things about himself, (and about the creation), but because he has revealed himself. God has not chosen to prove or commend himself. Rather, his self-revelation is primarily confrontation, and in that confrontation we are saved. The Scriptures bear witness to this divine activity. They seek neither to prove nor to justify God. They bear witness to his existence and activity. God is always at work, and he cannot reveal himself without revealing his intentions and his telos for the creation. This he does in his Son. We know this because the Scriptures bear witness to this, and because the Scripture’s Author (the Holy Spirit) has ‘read’ the Scriptures to us, and continues to do so.

Returning to the image of the boxing ring, I assert that both teams are called to read the Scriptures with their Author, and with their Author’s intention in mind, in a perichoretic movement of giving and receiving, with a common call of aiding the Church to proclaim the Bible’s message to itself and to the world and to apply the Bible’s message to the issues of contemporary life in accordance with the canon of faith. That’s why the image of the boxing ring may be a particularly unhelpful one. In reality, what we are called to be engaged in is being something more akin to a football team, where defenders, midfielders and attackers all bring their own unique skills to the game, as well as rely on the skills of their team mates to play well, and hopefully win the game – as a team. The skills required are different. The questions and ways of thinking are different. But the aim ought to be a common one – to play well as a team and, hopefully, win the game, i.e. fulfill the task that God has given these gifts to the Church to fulfill. In this hermeneutical spiral, that is, as the ball is passed around the field, not least by the other team as well, the Church hears afresh the words of God and is given confidence to proclaim that word with boldness. Of course, part of the difficulty is that defenders and attackers are playing by different rules and, too often, playing entirely different games. Sometimes the midfielders, respecting both sets of their teammates, try to hold it together, with various levels of success.

Recently, Frank Thielman has reminded us of the difference between the NT theologian and the secular historian:

Whereas both the New Testament theologian and the secular historian are interested in the history to which the canonical text give access, they differ on the importance that they grant to the perspectives of the texts themselves. Historians who stand outside the church employ every means at their disposal to render the perspectives of the canonical texts inoperative in their thinking. The texts then provide the raw data with which the secular historian attempts to reconstruct the story of early Christianity according to another perspective. The New Testament theologians, however, through the basic insight of faith, want to embrace the perspectives of the texts on the events that provoked their composition. The perspectives of the texts on the history of early Christianity are not husks to be peeled away so that the historian might see more clearly. They are not merely historical data that provide information about early Christian religion. For New Testament theologians who regard the texts as authoritative, the perspectives of the texts speak of their true significance. They are, in other words, objects of faith.[5]

Peter Taylor Forsyth gives even stronger voice to this theme:[6]

It is the gospel that must save the Church and its beliefs – yea, even the Bible. It is not these that save the gospel. The historic Cross is saving us from much in the historic Church. The historic gospel saved everything at the Reformation. It saved the Church from itself, and it must go on doing so. We must not come to the gospel with the permission of the critics, but tocriticism in the power of the Gospel. Faith does not wait upon criticism, but it is an essential condition of it. The complete critic is not a mere inquirer, but a believer. It was to believers, and not to critics, I repeat, that the things appealed which are criticised most, likethe Resurrection. Critical energy is only just and true in the hands of a Church whose heartis full of evangelical faith. The passion of an apostolic missionary faith is an essential condition to a scientific criticism both sound and safe. By sound I do not mean sound to the confessions, but to the mind. And by safe I do not mean safe for the Church, but safe for the soul. I mean that faith in the gospel, evangelical faith, is essential for that view of the whole case upon which sound results are based. It is essential in order to be fair to all the phenomena. It must enter in not to decide whether we accept proved results, but to decide the results we are to count proved. Faith is not only an asset which criticism must include in its audit; it is an organ that criticism must use. The eye cannot say to the ear, ‘I have no need of thee’.[7]

The dogmatician wishes to assert that, as the past quality and the present power of the Revelation which enables us to discern between truth and falsehood, faith is essential to sound criticism.[8] And that faith gives rise to theology. Faith is neither the same as theology, nor does it depend on theology. Rather, both faith and theology are dependent on one thing, the same thing, God. But faith’s speaking, confession and communication, demands theology. Faith wants to express itself, it wants to worship, confess and witness. It wants to be heard. Dogmatics desires that the faith mined by biblical critics in the passages of the Bible be verbalised meaningfully, intelligibility, and faithfully to the Church, and through the Church to the world. Again, Forsyth offers us a warning here:

There are too many people working on problems for the number that are concerned about the soul and its task, whether in a man or an age. It might be well that people were less occupied with the problems of the text if they were more with the problem of themselves and their kind. What we need most is not intellectual certainty but evangelical, not scientific history but history impressive, creative, teleological. And that is why one turns away for a time, however gratefully, from the scholars to the theologians, from the critics, work upon the New Testament to the believers work upon the Gospel.[9]

As important as ‘systematic’ theology is, too often the score is set by non-apostolic musicians, and so even if the jazz-theologians wish to move away from the score and improvise on the theme, it is the theme itself that really sets the tone. And as vital as biblical criticism is for the service of the Church, its very methodology often seems to deal out any sustained engagement with supra-historical questions, or to even raise the question of the significance of its own findings in the broader canonical and extra-canonical sphere.[10] This has led to the futile error of trying to reconstruct lives of the historical Jesus. Has biblical criticism forgotten why it exists – to witness to faith’s historicity, and ‘to help the Church to hear in all clarity the contingent reality of the early Church’s witness to the kerygmatic Christ’?[11] Yeago is right to assert that ‘historical research is propaedeutic[12] to the real theological-exegetical task … and it will not fare well if it is not pursued by the means proper to theological reflection.’[13]

Biblical exegetes perform an invaluable function. They help us to ‘disengage the kernel from the husk, to save the time so often lost in the defence of outposts, and to discard obsolete weapons and superfluous baggage’.[14] However,

The critical treatment of the Bible must have its place. Let us not make fools of ourselves by denying it. We shall be fighting against God and resisting the spirit. It arises out of the sound principle of interpreting the Bible by itself But its place is secondary, ancillary. It has little place in a pulpit. Criticism is the handmaid of the gospel – downstairs. The critical study of Scripture is at its best, and the higher criticism is at its highest, when it passes from being analytic and becomes synthetic. And the synthetic principle in the Bible is the gospel.[15]

Here Forsyth gives voice to the essential truth that the highest standard of criticism that we must apply to the Bible is not that of higher criticism, but of the Gospel itself. As Hunter put it, ‘What we have in the Bible is sacramental history, history with a drift the drift of God’s ongoing purpose of grace, prefigured in the Old Testament, and consummated in the New.’[16]

So how does the Gospel read the Bible? How did Christ use his Bible? On this, a lengthy quote from Forsyth may serve us well:

For we cannot be wrong if we use ours in the same central way. He used it as a means of grace, not as a manual of Hebrew or other history . His business was not to revise the story of the past or disentangle origins, but to reveal and effect the historic grace of God. He used his Bible as an organ of revelation, not of information, for religion and not science – not even for scientific religion. He found in it the long purpose and deep scope of God’s salvation, his many words and deeds of redemption in the experience of the chosen race. He cared nothing for the Bible as the expression of men’s ideas of God. He prized it wholly as the revelation of God’s gracious dealings with men. He cared for events only as they yielded his Father’s grace. He belonged to a race which was not made like other races by an idea of God, but by God’s revelations and rescues. ‘I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ He did not teach us ideas of God. He was not a sententious sage, full of wise saws or modern instances. He did not move about dropping apophthegms[17] as he made them. He does not even tell us ‘God is love.’ It is an apostle that does that. But he loves the love of God into us. He reveals in act and fact a loving God … He saw the loving God in nature and in history; and within history it was not in what men thought but in what God had done. What he saw was the whole movement of the Old Testament rather than its pragmatic detail. He dwelt lovingly indeed on many a gracious passage, but he found himself in the total witness of Israel’s history as shaped by grace. He cared little for what our scholars expound-the religion of Israel. His work is unaffected by any theories about the Levitical sacrifices. What he lived on was God’s action in his seers, God’s redemption in his mighty deeds, as it rises through the religion of Israel, yea, breaks through it, shakes itself clear even of its better forms, and translates it always to a higher plane. What he found was not the prophets’ thoughts of God, but God’s action in Israel by prophet, priest, or king, God’s invasion of them and their race by words and deeds of gracious power. It was the reality of God’s action on the soul, and in the soul, and for the soul. Above all, it was the exercise and the growth of God’s messianic purpose with the people, and through them on the whole race. It was in a messianic God that he found himself, and found himself God’s Messiah-Son. Abraham! ‘Before Abraham was I am.’ If Abraham ceased would he? And he grasped what his whole age was blind to, the Old Testament witness, deep in its spirit, to a Messiah of the cross. In a word, the torch he carried through the Old Testament was the gospel of grace. He read his Bible not critically, but religiously. He read it with the eyes of faith, not of science; and he found in it not the making of history by men, but the saving of history by God. That is to say he read his Bible as a whole. For he was its whole. And he lived on its gospel as a whole.[18]

From where I sit, biblical and systematic scholarship, often seduced by academia, has largely become a discipline, an academic quest, whose agenda is set by the academy and so is increasingly removed from the practical conditions that pastors and the Church face. In so far as it has allowed this to happen, it has moved itself away from the Scripture’s view of its own function. The NT was written by apostles and pastors who were daily at the coalface with people in their doubt, grief, death, guilt and repentance. No NT writer was condemned to the ‘mere scholars cloistered life’.[19] Their theology was hammered out not from articles and commentaries but on the anvil of existential need. They sought, at every turn, to bring every situation under the scrutiny and grace, not of Scripture, but of Jesus Christ, mindful of the fact that Jesus did not come to preach the Gospel (or the Bible) so much as he came to make a Gospel to preach. As the Apostolic band stood in Jesus Christ in the world’s midst, they were reminded again and again that the Gospel was mighty to deal with any and every issue. They fought and wrote out of this conviction and as people empassioned to make this good news known to the ends of the earth. They did not labour to defend or expound the Scriptures so much as they laboured to defend and expound the Gospel that the Scriptures bear witness to, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. O that exegetes and dogmaticians may do likewise!

Forsyth offers us a list of twenty brief points on the authority over (or source of) the Bible that may serve us well as he gives voice to the truth that the task of biblical exegesis is to serve theology whose task is proclamation of the Gospel which is authoritative for both disciplines.

1. There is something authoritative for the Bible itself.

2. It is not something which comes up to it from without like the scientific methods of the Higher Criticism. To make that supreme would be rationalism.

3. It is something which is in the Bible itself, provided by it, and provided nowhere else. We must go back to the Bible with modern scholarship to find what the Bible goes back to.

4. It is not truths extracted from the Bible and guaranteed by prophecy and miracle. That is the antiquated supernaturalism with its doctrinaire orthodoxy.

5. In a word, that is over the Bible which is over the Church and the Creeds. It is the Gospel of Grace, which produced Bible, Creed, and Church alike. And by the Gospel is meant primarily God’s act of pure Grace for men, and only secondarily the act of men witnessing it for God in a Bible or a Church.

6. The Gospel was an experienced fact, a free, living, preached Word long before it was a fixed and written Word – as was the case also with the prophets.

7. It is not enough to say the authority in the Bible is Christ unless you are clear whether you mean the character of Christ or His Gospel. All admit Christ’s character to be a product of God’s action; is the same true of Christ’s Gospel?

8. To apply the Gospel of Grace as the standard of the Bible is to go higher than the Higher Criticism. It is the highest. The Gospel is not merely the final test of the Bible, but its supreme source; and the Bible is its humble vassal to be treated in any way that best obeys and serves it. The security of the Gospel gives us our critical freedom.

9. The Bible is not merely a record of the revelation. It is part of it. It is more true that God’s great Word contains the Bible than that the Bible contains the Word. The Word in Christ needed exposition by the Bible. The Gospels find their only central interpretation in the Epistles.

10. The Bible is not so much a document as a sacrament. It is not primarily a voucher for the historian but a preacher for the soul. The Christ of the Gospels even is not a biographical Christ, so much as a preached Christ. The Bible is not so much a record of Christ as a record and a part of the preaching about Christ, which was the work of the Spirit and the apostles. There is no real collision between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles. The apostles, and especially Paul, moved by the heavenly Christ, form an essential part of Christ’s revelation of God’s grace.

11. It was a theological Gospel, though not authoritative as dogma but as living, personal revelation. The Christian experience must cast itself more or less in the forms of its historic origin, and not merely in those of human relations and affections. E.g., Christian sonship is not natural, or even spiritual, but evangelical; it is the sonship of adoption. So conversely with the Fatherhood of God.

12. This subordination of the Bible to the Gospel was the relation felt by Jesus Himself. He used His Bible for its Gospel, not for its information – as a means of grace, and not as a manual of Hebrew history. That is, He read His Bible as a whole. He commits us not to the whole Bible but to the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a compendium of facts, historic or theological, but the channel of redeeming grace. Faith is something more than the historic sense dealing with documents. It is the moral and spiritual sense dealing with revelation as Redemption.

13. The appeal of the Bible is not to the faith of the individual but to that of the whole Church, which is the other great product of the Gospel. My dullness or disbelief does not affect the witness of the saints, classic or common, in every Church and age.

14. In the Church the Bible becomes more than a product of the Word. It is a producer of it in turn. It generates the faith that generated it. As the greatest of preachers it produces preachers. And it is at home only in a Church whose first duty to men is to preach.

15. The detachment of faith from the Bible and from its daily use marks both Romanism and the religiosity of the modern mind.

16. The disuse of the Bible by Christians is due to a vague sense of insecurity rising from critical work on it, and to the extravagant claims made for it which criticism prunes.

17. The Christian creed has really but one article, great with all the rest. It is the Gospel of God’s redeeming Grace in Christ. The charter of the Church is not the Bible, but Redemption. Those words of Christ are prime revelation to us, and of first obligation, which carry home to us the redeeming grace incarnate in His person and mission.

18. The Higher Criticism has been a great blessing, but it has gone too far alone, i.e., without final reference to the highest, the synthetic standard of the Bible – the Gospel of Grace. What we need, to give us the real historic contents of the Bible, is not a history of the Religion of Israel, but of Redemption – with all the light the Higher Criticism can shed on it, and much more that it cannot.

19. Christianity will not stand or fall by its attitude to its documents, but by its attitude to its Gospel and to the soul.

20. The Free Churches have yet to face the spiritual problem created for them by the collapse of an inerrant Bible and the failure of an authoritative Church. And the only key lies in the authority of that grace which called them into being as the true heirs of the Reformation, the trustees of the Evangelical tradition, and the chief witnesses of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption. [20]

Forsyth contends that the Bible bears witness to the truth that its own authority is the Gospel itself. The Gospel is the interpretative lens through which scripture is to be read and understood. That Gospel is neither sociological nor historical at core, but rather theological. That’s why the biblical exegete must be informed by dogmatics.

An example. The people of God are endlessly being called upon to discern the mind/will of God on all number of issues. Sometimes these issues are clear cut, as in whether we should pray or evangelise. But the discerning process is rarely so clear, as in the case of infant baptism or nuclear energy or euthanasia, or the plethora of questions regarding church authority, even the nature of the Bible itself, or even why and how we should pray or evangelise. This is at least partly why denominationalism arose. More recently, many denominations have been engaged in a process of re-discerning the Church’s thinking on sexuality. What is obvious in all of these examples is that neither thorough biblical exegesis nor historical reviews are able to take us to where our minds and hearts need to go, and this in spite of the insistence in some camps that if the Bible has a text on it, then the matter is settled. What is clear to me is that even the very best exegesis on the relevant passages[21] only takes us some of the way. The discussion, for example on sexuality, also needs to be informed by historical, pastoral, and medical considerations, although each of these voices ought be played with differing levels of volume in the Church’s discussion. The key hermeneutical question is the theological. It is primarily not a question of ‘how’ or ‘why’ but of ‘who’. The starting question for all Christian theology is ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ And this question can not be answered by biblical exegesis alone. It requires the Church to engage with thousands of years of exegesis – of the scriptural witness and of its experience – harnessing Scripture, reason, experience and tradition.

A final thought. Both biblical critics and exegetes perform an indispensable function for the Church. Harnessing all the tools and insights that critical scholarship can muster, exegetes and dogmaticians both require a new centre of orientation. What can I do that this new centre might be made both more attractive and crowded? How can both ends of the field play well as a team, play the same game, communicate in the same language, and, hopefully, win the game, that is, serve the Church in her proclamation of the good news? Is this even desirable? Is this even possible, given the resistance to it in even those of the same theological camp? Granted some camps like playing together more than others. What do we do when some of the players want to play on a different team? Or even play an entirely different game? Should we encourage this diverse game playing? Why? Why not? Is Yeago’s suggestion the best way forward?

In such a situation, subversion is perhaps a more hopeful strategy than frontal attack. That is to say, the future of theological exegesis may depend on those who quietly go about learning how to do theological exegesis from the tradition and the clearest-headed contemporary sources, and then actually let the void of the texts be heard in their preaching and theologizing. And this may simply mean that we are forced back into a posture which is itself biblically normative! modeled for the Church in the self-presentation of the Apostle Paul.

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:4).[22]




[1] Paul C. McGlasson, Invitation to Dogmatic Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 27.

[2] Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987), 36-7.

[3] See Adolf Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles: The Development of New Testament Theology (trans. A. J. Köstenberger; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

[4] For Barth, Holy Scripture is not simply a record of theological reflection from below. By God’s grace, the Scriptures are the revealed Word of God. That’s why exegesis and interpretation of Scripture are critical for his dogmatics. See his lengthy discussion of this in Church Dogmatics (I/1 and I/2). As a ‘science of the Church’ dogmatics presupposes not the ‘objective’ exegesis of the Romans but rather a ‘theological exegesis’. This‘theological exegesis’ is informed by the history of the Church’s hearing of God’s Word in Scripture and exists with a view to hearing that Word afresh in our own day. Barth develops this in Church Dogmatics I/2 under the title of “Freedom under the Word of God” (695-740). Fundamentally, Barth calls for the recognition of humanity’s relative standing with respect to God’s Word. Human beings, while not forbidden to bring to bear their tools of philosophy and critical exegesis, must subordinate the text and the meanings found there to God’s self, who is always ‘other than’ the words we humans use to express God’s will.

[5] Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 31-32.

[6] I turn here to Forsyth not just because he is one that I am somewhat familiar with, but because in many ways he was a man who lived and served caught between two camps. Rejected by liberal theologians as being outdated in his views on God’s wrath, judgement and transcendence, more ‘orthodox’ Protestants, both within and without his denomination, were suspicious of his use of, and praise for, liberal theology’s critical tools and his embracing of some liberal terminology. This does not mean that he believed that critical tools should be adopted injudiciously. They ought be used, but used ‘critically’, andnot abused, like those who sought to create divisions between the ‘Historical Jesus’ of the Synoptics and the ‘dogmatic Christ’ of the Epistles. 25 years before C. H. Dodd penned his Apostolic Preaching, Forsyth was arguing for the importance of seeing a common kerygma that created both the Gospels and Epistles. And at a time in Britain when critical scholarship was spurned in favour of doing ‘real theology’ and chasing more ‘practical’ enterprises, Forsyth sought to encourage fellow theologians to be better informed by the insights of biblical critics, particularly those in Germany. He saw in scholars like Adolf Schlatter an outstanding example of the kinds of scholarship that dogmaticians and pastors ought to be reading and allowing to shape and inform their theology.

[7] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Missions in State and Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 304-6; cf. Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 38, 55.

[8] See Peter Taylor Forsyth, Missions in State and Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 300, 303.

[9] Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987), 85. Forsyth has written not a little on this area. See Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 12-15, 112, 122f., 169, 184, 185, 194, 195; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1909), 104, 178, 180, 204, 262, 267, 274; Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘Churches, Sects and Wars’, Contemporary Review 107 (May 1915): 620; Peter Taylor Forsyth, Faith, Freedom and the Future (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), ix, 84; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947), 36, 75-76, 104, 113; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church, The Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 67, 69, 91-92; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987), 39-40, 53, 57.

[10] Yeago has put it thus: ‘One of the consequences of the Western Church’s two centuries of fumbling with the implications of the historical-critical method is a loss of any sense of the connection between the classical doctrines of the Church and the text of scripture. It is assumed that a truly scholarly interpretation of the scripturaltexts methodologically excludes any reference to Christian doctrine as a hermeneutical touchstone, and as a matter of historical fact, though not of logical necessity, the historical-critical enterprise has often been understood as the liberation of rational intelligence and religious experience from the dead hand of dogma. The doctrines, in such a context, come to seem a superstructure overlaid on the texts by theological speculation, at best a time-conditioned expression of spiritual experience somehow distantly responsive to the scriptural witness, at worst the token of the “Hellenized” Church’s cultural alienation from that witness.’ David S. Yaego, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (ed. S. E. Fowl; Maryland: Loyola College, 1997), 87.

[11] John H. Rodgers, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth: The Cross of Christ and the Revelation of God (London: Independent Press, 1965), 169.

[12] ‘Propaedeutic’ means pertaining to or of the nature of preliminary instruction.

[13] David S. Yaego, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (ed. S. E. Fowl; Maryland: Loyola College, 1997), 97.

[14] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 280.

[15] Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘The Evangelical Churches and the Higher Criticism’ in The Gospel and Authority: A P. T. Forsyth Reader: Eight Essays Previously Published in Journals (ed. M. W. Anderson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971), 24.

[16] Archibald M. Hunter, P. T. Forsyth: Per Crucem ad Lucem (London: SCM Press, 1974), 33. On the Bible as sacrament see Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society: An Essay in the Philosophy of Experimental Religion (London: Independent Press, 1952), 134-135, 372-374; Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘Churches, Sects and Wars’, Contemporary Review 107 (May 1915): 620; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947), 132; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church, The Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 68-69, 125-127.

[17] A terse, witty, instructive saying; a maxim.

[18] Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘The Evangelical Churches and the Higher Criticism’ in The Gospel and Authority: A P. T. Forsyth Reader: Eight Essays Previously Published in Journals (ed. M. W. Anderson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971), 34-5.

[19] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 193.

[20] Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 67-70.

[21] Thomas Schmidt’s Straight and Narrow?: Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (Leicester: IVP, 1995) is an excellent review of the biblical literature. See also J. Arterburn, How Will I Tell My Mother? (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1990); D. J. Atkinson & D. H. Field (eds.), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1995); M. Bergner, Setting Love in Order: Hope and Healing for the Homosexual (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); S. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Green, 1955); A. Comiskey, Pursuing Sexual Wholeness (Lake Mary: Creation House, 1989); B. Davies & L. Rentzel, Coming Out of Homosexuality (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993); S. Grenz, Sexual Ethics (Dallas: Word, 1990); J. P. Hanigan, Homosexuality: The Test Case for Christian Ethics (New York: Paulist, 1988); A. D. Hart, The Sexual Man: Masculinity Without Guilt (Dallas: Word, 1994); C. Keane (ed.). What some of you were: stories about Christians and homosexuality (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2002); L. Payne, The Broken Image (Westchester: Crossway, 1981); L. Payne, The Healing of the Homosexual (Westchester: Crossway, 1984); T. Payne & P. D. Jensen, Pure Sex (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 1998); P. Pronk, Against Nature? Types of Moral Argumentation Regarding Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); O. P. Robertson, The Genesis of Sex: Sexual Relationships in the First Book of the Bible (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002); D. W. Torrance (ed.). God, Family and Sexuality (The Stables, Carberry: The Handsel Press, 1997).

[22] David S. Yaego, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (ed. S. E. Fowl; Maryland: Loyola College, 1997), 98.

On Adolf Schlatter

Over at Biblical Foundations, Andreas Kostenberger has a post on Adolf Schlatter as a model of biblical scholarship and theology. I reproduce it hear because Schlatter was an important influence on Forsyth. His book, The Theology of the Apostles, recently published by Baker, is a fantastic read and an excellent model of biblical theology. Too many of his perceptive insights have been ignored.

Adolf Schlatter: A Model of Scholarship

One of my scholarly and personal heroes is Adolf Schlatter. At a time when Adolf Harnack espoused his liberalism, and Rudolf Bultmann eclectically appropriated David Friedrich Strauss’s mythological approach and Martin Heidegger’s existentialism, Schlatter stood firm in his advocacy of a biblical-theological, salvation-historical reading of the Bible and a high view of Scripture.

In the foreword to The History of the Christ in 1920, Schlatter wrote, “The knowledge of Jesus is the foremost, indispensable centerpiece of New Testament theology.” This stands in marked contract to Rudolf Bultmann, who opened his famous two-volume New Testament Theology thus: “The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.”

In his approach to hermeneutics, Schlatter was ahead of his time and uttered timeless principles such as these:

It is the historical objective that should govern our conceptual work exclusively and completely, stretching our perceptive faculties to the limit. We turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being. Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them. We want to see and obtain a thorough grasp of what happened historically and existed in another time. This is the internal disposition upon which the success of the work depends, the commitment which must consistently be renewed as the work proceeds. (History of the Christ, 18)

In a day when interpretation increasingly becomes an exercise in reader response, or when texts are said to have a life of their own apart from the intentions of the author who willed them into being, Schlatter’s hermeneutic of perception, that is, of perceive listening and apprehension of the words of another, speaks a powerful message. Much of the contemporary interpretive confusion arising from undue subjectivism could be avoided if Schlatter’s words were heeded.

Also timeless if Schlatter’s emphasis on Jesus as the center of the biblical message read as a whole. This conviction is fleshed out compellingly in his 2-volume New Testament Theology, entitled respectively, The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles. It also underlies Schlatter’s final work, a devotional called Do We Know Jesus? which he wrote in his old age during the last year of his life.

In this his final work, the 85 year-old Schlatter penned the following words, just shortly before the outbreak of World War II:

Do we know Jesus? If we no longer know him, we no longer know ourselves. For in our ancestral line, he is at work with unrivaled power. Compared to him, what is a Hildebrand become one with his sword, or a Krimhild burning with passionate lust? The condition of our inner lives and of our national community proves that the things Jesus built into this world are both present and at work among us. This is not obscured even by the numerous antichrists among us. For precisely when they, with blazing wrath, seek to suppress any memory of Jesus, their thoughts and intentions are inevitably shaped by the One they combat as their enemy.

It is on account of this raw courage, and this power of prophetic insight, that Schlatter, though dead, still speaks to us today and challenges us to engage in a hermeneutic of perceptive insight and humble confidence, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

For material on Schlatter see his two-volume theology, The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles (Baker, 1997 and 1998). See also his biblical theology presented in devotional form, Do We Know Jesus? Daily Insights for the Mind and Soul (Kregel, 2005); and “Schlatter Reception Then and Now: His New Testament Theology (Part 1),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3/1 (Spring 1999): 40–51.

Forsyth on the Bible and authority

Ben Myers, over at Faith and Theology, has posted a great post by Kim Fabricus on preaching. Well worth checking out. On a related note, here’s a list of points that Forsyth makes about the authority over (or source of) the Bible.

1. There is something authoritative for the Bible itself.

2. It is not something which comes up to it from without like the scientific methods of the Higher Criticism. To make that supreme would be rationalism.

3. It is something which is in the Bible itself, provided by it, and provided nowhere else. We must go back to the Bible with modern scholarship to find what the Bible goes back to.

4. It is not truths extracted from the Bible and guaranteed by prophecy and miracle. That is the antiquated supernaturalism with its doctrinaire orthodoxy.

5. In a word, that is over the Bible which is over the Church and the Creeds. It is the Gospel of Grace, which produced Bible, Creed, and Church alike. And by the Gospel is meant primarily God’s act of pure Grace for men, and only secondarily the act of men witnessing it for God in a Bible or a Church.

6. The Gospel was an experienced fact, a free, living, preached Word long before it was a fixed and written Word – as was the case also with the prophets.

7. It is not enough to say the authority in the Bible is Christ unless you are clear whether you mean the character of Christ or His Gospel. All admit Christ’s character to be a product of God’s action; is the same true of Christ’s Gospel?

8. To apply the Gospel of Grace as the standard of the Bible is to go higher than the Higher Criticism. It is the highest. The Gospel is not merely the final test of the Bible, but its supreme source; and the Bible is its humble vassal to be treated in any way that best obeys and serves it. The security of the Gospel gives us our critical freedom.

9. The Bible is not merely a record of the revelation. It is part of it. It is more true that God’s great Word contains the Bible than that the Bible contains the Word. The Word in Christ needed exposition by the Bible. The Gospels find their only central interpretation in the Epistles.

10. The Bible is not so much a document as a sacrament. It is not primarily a voucher for the historian but a preacher for the soul. The Christ of the Gospels even is not a biographical

Christ, so much as a preached Christ. The Bible is not so much a record of Christ as a record and a part of the preaching about Christ, which was the work of the Spirit and the apostles. There is no real collision between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles. The apostles, and especially Paul, moved by the heavenly Christ, form an essential part of Christ’s revelation of God’s grace.

11. It was a theological Gospel, though not authoritative as dogma but as living, personal revelation. The Christian experience must cast itself more or less in the forms of its historic origin, and not merely in those of human relations and affections. E.g., Christian sonship is not natural, or even spiritual, but evangelical; it is the sonship of adoption. So conversely with the Fatherhood of God.

12. This subordination of the Bible to the Gospel was the relation felt by Jesus Himself. He used His Bible for its Gospel, not for its information – as a means of grace, and not as a manual of Hebrew history. That is, He read His Bible as a whole. He commits us not to the whole Bible but to the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a compendium of facts, historic or theological, but the channel of redeeming grace. Faith is something more than the historic sense dealing with documents. It is the moral and spiritual sense dealing with revelation as Redemption.

13. The appeal of the Bible is not to the faith of the individual but to that of the whole Church, which is the other great product of the Gospel. My dullness or disbelief does not affect the witness of the saints, classic or common, in every Church and age.

14. In the Church the Bible becomes more than a product of the Word. It is a producer of it in turn. It generates the faith that generated it. As the greatest of preachers it produces preachers. And it is at home only in a Church whose first duty to men is to preach.

15. The detachment of faith from the Bible and from its daily use marks both Romanism and the religiosity of the modern mind.

16. The disuse of the Bible by Christians is due to a vague sense of insecurity rising from critical work on it, and to the extravagant claims made for it which criticism prunes.

17. The Christian creed has really but one article, great with all the rest. It is the Gospel of God’s redeeming Grace in Christ. The charter of the Church is not the Bible, but Redemption. Those words of Christ are prime revelation to us, and of first obligation, which carry home to us the redeeming grace incarnate in His person and mission.

18. The Higher Criticism has been a great blessing, but it has gone too far alone, i.e., without final reference to the highest, the synthetic standard of the Bible – the Gospel of Grace. What we need, to give us the real historic contents of the Bible, is not a history of the Religion of Israel, but of Redemption – with all the light the Higher Criticism can shed on it, and much more that it cannot.

19. Christianity will not stand or fall by its attitude to its documents, but by its attitude to its Gospel and to the soul.

20. The Free Churches have yet to face the spiritual problem created for them by the collapse of an inerrant Bible and the failure of an authoritative Church. And the only key lies in the authority of that grace which called them into being as the true heirs of the Reformation, the trustees of the Evangelical tradition, and the chief witnesses of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption.

(Taken from PT Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962): 67-70)

The error of inerrancy

Some of you may have been following the postings by Chris Tilling on Biblical inerrancy here and here. Not wanting to leave this debate entirely in the hands of the biblical commentators, and wanting to say something in response, I wish here to offer a (not the only, nor indeed a particularly full) theological perspective on this vitally important question. ‘I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics, in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration. The Bible is the one enchiridion of the preacher still, the one manual of eternal life, the one page that glows as all life grows dark, and the one book whose wealth rebukes us more the older we grow because we knew and loved it so late’ (Preaching, 26). So said PT Forsyth to his American audience in his Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind. It seems to me the debate concerning infallibility is at core one about the nature and object of authority and where that authority for faith and life is to be found.

Notwithstanding the debates about terminology used, to my mind it is of great concern that people of faith should consider the ground of their faith a book, rather than in what that book testifies to. In some schools, this amounts to no less than bibliolatry. The Bible is not the Koran! An infallible book implies that our primary need is revelation, and that contained and conveyed in words. Whereas our greatest need is not intellectual but moral, not truth but grace, not revelation but redemption. I, for one, do not see a necessity for belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures but, with Forsyth, I believe it should be difficult for us to not believe in verbal inspiration. I believe in that which creates the Bible, i.e. the gospel to which the Scriptures perfectly bear witness. And I believe that we must believe in the Bible’s finality, authority and inspiration.

Donald Bloesch’s definition of inspiration is helpful here: ‘. . . inspiration is the divine election and superintendence of particular writers and writings in order to ensure a trustworthy and potent witness to the truth’ (Holy Scripture, 119). The authority of the Scriptures lies in the same place that the authority for life and the Church exists: in the gospel itself. What, then, is the authority in the church? The church itself? The ex cathedra statements? The magisterium? Existential experience? The authority is where it always has been, in the apostolic testimony to Christ. The authority is carried by the apostolic word, but that word itself is not the authority. What we have is the apostolic message as it has been committed to writing by the apostles, in what we know as the New Testament.

So the question remains, do we believe what the apostles taught or not? The fact that we learn shape of the gospel from the Bible does not make the Bible an infallible witness, but a completely faithful one. (As an aside, why is it that so many of those who trumpet the inerrancy of scripture from pulpits either fail to use the Bible in their preaching or misuse it so severely? A wise preacher once said to me that you can tell what one’s view of Scripture is not from what one says about them, but rather from how one uses them.) The Scriptures are the authority, for no other reason than they are the definitive testimony to Christ. That would not imply that there is no further communication from God to us, simply that in what is written we have the certain word. All else is to be tested against that (1 Thess. 5:20-22; 1 John 4:1). So, ‘nothing beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6); ‘To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isa. 8:20).

As PT Forsyth put it: ‘Inspiration and Revelation are two very different things, and one mistake we have made has been to treat them as being co-extensive, if not identical. The first mistake, of course, was in applying such words to a book. It is said the Bible is a revelation from God, or the Bible is inspired. The statement is loose. The Bible contains God’s revelation (though in no dissectible way); what is the revelation is the Gospel, as some put it, or, as others would say, Christ, or the line of historic redemption. And, as to Inspiration, it is not, strictly speaking, the Bible that was inspired, but the souls of the men whose writings fill it. The more we dwell on this, the more we may feel what important consequences flow from the correction. The verbal, literal infallibility of Scripture goes down at once, for example, and with it so many of the doubts, or attacks, it has roused’ (Parnassus, 243).

And again: ‘”Who shall tell me surely what to believe about Christ?” None can. No Church can. No book can; no saint, no theologian. None can but Christ Himself in actual presence-it may be without a word that I could report, or a theme I could frame-by overwhelming my soul with its greatness and its evil, its judgment and its salvation, in His invincible word of death, resurrection, and glory’ (Authority, 63).

And again: ‘The inspiration is not infallible in the sense that every event is certain or every statement final. You may agree with what I say without agreeing with all I say. The Bible’s inspiration, and its infallibility, are such as pertain to redemption and not theology, to salvation and not mere history. It is as infallible as a Gospel requires, not as a system. Remember that Christ did not come to bring a Bible but to bring a Gospel. The Bible arose afterwards from the Gospel to serve the Gospel. We do not treat the Bible aright, we do not treat it with the respect it asks for itself, when we treat it as a theologian, but only when we treat it as an apostle, as a preacher, as the preacher in the perpetual pulpit of the Church. It is saturated with dogma, but its writers were not dogmatists; and it concerns a Church, but they were not ecclesiastics. The Bible, the preacher, and the Church are all made by the same thing-the Gospel. The Gospel was there before the Bible, and it created the Bible, as it creates the true preacher and the true sermon everywhere. And it is for the sake and service of the Gospel that both Bible and preacher exist. We are bound to use both, at any cost to tradition, in the way that gives freest course to the Gospel in which they arose. The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the Gospel. It was created by faith in the Gospel. And in turn it creates faith among men. It is at once the expression of faith and its source. It is a nation’s sermon to the race. It is the wonder-working relic of a saint-nation which was the living organ of living revelation. What made the inspiration of the book? It was the prior inspiration of the people and of the men by the revelation. Revelation does not consist of communications about God. It never did. If it had it might have come by an inspired book dictated to one in a dream. But revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God, His self-limitation in the interest of grace. It is the living God in the act of imparting Himself to living souls. It is God Himself drawing ever more near and arrived at last. And a living God can only come to men by living men. Inspiration is the state of a soul, not of a book-of a book only in so far as the book is a transcript of a soul inspired. It was by men that God gave Himself to men, till, in the fullness of time, He came, for good and all, in the God-man Christ, the living Word; in whom God was present, reconciling the world unto Himself, not merely acting through Him but present in Him, reconciling and not speaking of reconciliation, or merely offering it to us.’ (Preaching, 9-11).

I remember once attending a packed wee (that means ‘little’ for those non-Scots) church to hear a preacher. I was at the back and could not see him, so I created a stack of Bible’s to stand on, that I might better see the preacher and hear the Word. I remember being told off for engaging in such ‘disrespectful’ activity. I complied, more out of embarrassment than anything else, but over the years I have reflected on what was happening here and the message that was given to me as a young Christian. They are many of course. But what was my reproofer saying about the Bible? Was it simply that I should respect it, and the church’s property? Or was it more? I’ve often wondered if the reaction would have been the same had I stood on a stack of hymnbooks. I’m afraid that in some places this may be even considered the ‘greater sin’. I know that standing on the word enabled me to hear the Word more clearly.

Finally, I love the Scriptures… all of them. I was converted reading the Scriptures. Sometimes I feel that I am reconverted when I read them. In them is where I discover their God-breathed nature and so their profit for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that people may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ And for that I thank the Lord for the Scriptures. I have devoted my life to their study. With the psalmist, I say ‘Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day and night’ (119:97). I love the Scriptures for in them is where I find life, where I hear the word of Christ in such a way that I cannot argue back. In this sense, they are final. Although more than happy to be convinced otherwise, why this requires, or even demands, a belief in inerrancy remains a mystery to me. Luther once said, ‘Christ is the Master; the Scriptures are only the servant. The true way to test all the Books is to see whether they work the will of Christ or not. No Book which does not preach Christ can be apostolic, though Peter or Paul were its author. And no Book which does preach Christ can fail to be apostolic though Judas, Ananias, Pilate or Herod were its author’ and that ‘The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.’ Not bad for a guy who (wrongly) called James an ‘epistle of straw!’ (NB. For those who wish to throw stones, or cans of fruit, may they please be well polished and, if fruit, I like peaches.)